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"I Came Here to Test Myself" - Stephen Mayaka On the Kenyan Student Runner's Life

Stephen Mayaka was the first Kenyan high school runner in Japan and the first to go the complete route from high school to university and on into the corporate running world. Now a Japanese citizen, married to a former World Championships-level Japanese marathoner and head coach of Obirin University’s track and field team, Mayaka is a mentor to Kenyan athletes both across Japan and back in Kenya. JRN interviewed Mayaka just before New Year, 2010 for an article for Running Times magazine.

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Part One: Discovery, High School and University

Could you talk a bit about your personal history? How were you selected to come to Japan?

I first came to Japan in 1990, in December. I came here to test myself. When I was in Kenya I ran in the Kenyan Secondary School Championships. I was the top at cross-country. There was a Japanese there, the one who introduced Samuel Wanjiru to Sendai Ikuei [High School], Mr. Kobayashi. He had spotted me, and before, Joseph Otwori, who came from the same school. He was told by Yamanashi Gakuin that we want to look for someone strong, a Kenyan, who can come out this year, the first person. So he came to my school and talked with my headmaster and the principal, and then the coaches came from Yamanashi Gakuin. So that’s how it started, that’s where I got a scholarship from Yamanashi Gakuin. We finished exams in November, and then we talked after my examination, and before we started the new courses they told me, “You come and see how Japan is. You can train for two months and then come back.” But I came and then stayed forever. (laughs) It was a kind of coming and seeing, and then I could see which way to go, to America or Japan.

In 1991 I joined the Yamanashi Gakuin High School for one year, studying the Japanese language. After that one year, when I graduated they told me, “No, you don’t have to go, because you can join our university.” And that’s how it happened. After graduation I started my first year of university in 1992. I had four years of training for employment in university, and I ran everywhere, so many races.

After that I joined the Daiei company in Fukuoka, but because of the economy the club broke up and I came back to Hitachi. That’s where I worked for eight years. After that I wanted to renew my contract, but we did not agree about the salary so I said, “Let me go for another area. Something that would be a first.” The top people and I, we met somewhere and they told me, do I want to make a track club at Sozo Gakuen University? I told them, “Let me go and consider,” but I had many offers, and first I had to think about my family and my career after. To be a running coach and do some coaching, that was what I really wanted to do. I left Hitachi in 2006. That’s when I started to come here.

Now I’m head coach at Sozo Gakuen. There are about seventeen students, both girls and boys. Those are the ones I’m looking after, but I’m not here all the time. There are some Kenyans who need some help, so maybe I have to go to Kenya to see them, then maybe I have to go to Kyushu for those who I’ve just introduced to a company. Tomorrow I’m supposed to go and talk with a few about the New Year Ekiden. The race and their condition. These are new athletes who came here this year and they’re not used to the Japanese. They don’t know how to run the ekiden and other things. It’s their first time so I have to tell them how to compete with the others because they don’t know and they might be having a panic sometimes.

When you came you didn’t speak any Japanese. What kind of problems did you experience your first few years?

At first, in Japan in 1990 there were not many Africans. Like about five Kenyans including those who were ambassadors and diplomats. The Japanese people who went to a competition, they were full of wonder because they didn’t see many Africans. I mean, out of most of the races in Japan, maybe they only saw them at the Tokyo [International] Marathon just once, and then the Africans would be gone. So I had a problem when I came at first, you know, I was staying in Yamanashi. Most of the people, they didn’t care to see a black man walking around because it was a rural area. Some of them, sometimes, some of the kids, they were running away! (laughs) It was because they were not used to Africans too much, but once they started to see me in magazines and on television they went, “Oh, this is the person we see,” and they got used to me. Even myself, also, I was afraid to talk with them because I didn’t know Japanese. Some of them when I would go into a shop they would panic and say, “Oh no no no no no!” And I’m, “But I want to buy something!” (laughs) It was because of the communication.

More of a problem for me were my teammates. It was difficult because most of them, they didn’t speak English, and I myself also, I didn’t speak Japanese. Sometimes I didn’t understand signs or other things. If I talked with the head coach, he needed to speak English so that he could try to explain to me what he meant. But the only problems I had at first, not now, were the language and food, and homesickness. But now, those ones who are coming at this time, there are many Kenyans and they can call each other. But at the time I was here, we had no mobile phones, so communicating to Kenya, it was something like sitting down and writing a letter. I didn’t ever see other Kenyans. We were on our own except for sometimes by telephone or at one of the races. So you felt you were the only person, the only different person out of about 100 students, and that became a lot of stress. If you looked all around, you would see Mayaka and the other guys were all Japanese, and you know it wasn’t easy, they didn’t smile. If you’re not Japanese, you can’t not notice it. So in that situation I felt very homesick for a time because there was no one I could consult about something, and the language was making things very difficult. That led me to study Japanese more and more, and so I went to Japanese language school.

At the time I came it was December. That’s when it was very cold. Every day I had to stay inside. (laughs) It was so difficult. Some things I cannot forget in my life, like the first time I stayed in Japan. Those ones who come now, they’re enjoying it, but those who came first, we suffered a lot, but we suffered for them because we opened the way for them. Now what they’re earning is because of us. If we couldn’t stick it out, if we left and said, “No, Japan is bad,” most of the Japanese, they would say, “Ah, no, Africans, they cannot stay in Japan.” We sacrificed ourselves and stayed for long.

I was advised by one of my advisors in university at the time, “If you just stick with us and be patient, your future life will be very ordered. If you learn Japanese then after you retire you can teach in Japan or you can help some Kenyans coming to Japan or you can make a full life in Kenya,” and in the end that advice it came to good use and I say to you it was very good advice. But there are those ones who are coming now, I try to tell them that they should study Japanese, but they say, “No, there’s no use for studying Japanese because I don’t want to stay. There’s no way. My home is in Kenya.” But that doesn’t make sense because you are staying with these people and you have to study and communicate yourself with them, your masters who are employing you. And so you don’t need me to come all the time to explain “This is what he wants,” because hey, I might need to go somewhere else! (laughs) I think there’s a kind of difference with those who are coming now, because they are fond of earning money but they don’t want to communicate. So we are angry, we are annoyed because they are spending years here and still can’t communicate. What have they been learning all of these months? Communication is very important. That’s the way I see it.

When you were in school how much were you really going to classes, or were you really more like a professional runner just based at the school? In terms of your training, were you training by yourself or with the Japanese runners? I imagine there was a difference in ability.

When I was in high school, at the time I came to Yamanashi at the high school there was no club, there weren’t any runners there, even Japanese, so I was in high school training with the university students. I could train by myself in the morning or train with the university students. And meanwhile they had to teach me the Japanese language. They had a Japanese teacher for me learning Japanese when I was in the class, because I did not understand. I was going regularly as a normal student until maybe 3 or 4, then I would go with many university students and we would train together so that I could get used to it. After I got used to it, even though I was the only runner in the high school and there weren’t any Japanese who were running, I couldn’t go to the National High School meet because I think the rule was that no one foreign could run Nationals. So, I only participated in the All-Japan Junior Championships. That was my first big race in Japan, and I won it. That was the time, I started same career with Waseda University’s Yasuyuki Watanabe, and Tsuyoshi Ogata, when we competed in the 10000. That was the first time I used the Yamanashi Gakuin High School uniform.

After that I went to university and then started, in my first year, going to normal classes three times a week after my morning run with the university students, then I’d go to language school two hours. After I finished then I’d go to university for another seminar, then after that I’d go to training. I was then using a bicycle because it was 5 km from the dorm to the university and about 8 km from the dormitory to where we were going to train. So I’d train by myself in the morning, eat breakfast, go to language school, from there I’d go to university, from university I’d go another 8 km, train there and then take my bike home because we were cooking for ourselves. This was regular, but it was difficult day to day because we’d become very tired. It was very difficult times when I was in Yamanashi, but I see now, that’s life. I did meet some foreign students at Japanese language school and then we could talk. Black men? It was only me. I was the only black man there. There were some students from Finland, France, some Indians. That was the time I was not feeling homesick.

But university was kind of difficult. Sometimes I couldn’t make my own training program because the system I was using in Kenya, I could not apply it in Japan. So I started to follow how they were doing it. We could do the same training, but the times set for me were higher than them, so sometimes when we were running even 15 km on the track, on this run I could run with them up to 8 km and from there I’d go my own. I didn’t have to pace for them all the time. You know myself, I needed support too, so I could do halfway and then it was for myself. Or when they didn’t run but I was having training then I could train by myself.

Do you think that’s fairly typical for Kenyans at other universities? Having seen TV interviews with, for example, Mekubo Mogusu and Daniel Gitau, they seemed quite different and I wonder about what kind of experience they each had at university.

It’s quite different because drawing up the training program is different. I don’t know at Nihon University how it is, but sometimes I see like Daniel, maybe, he’s training alone, and he’s doing speedwork. When I was at Yamanashi Gakuin sometimes I was training with these people at their pace so that I could build up a base before the real running, but the main issue of coming to Japan in high school is that you come, you train with these people so that they can make times, they can be strong, not that you yourself want to be strong. You have to make Kenyans understand that they’re running in this way, for these athletes whose schools are paying for it. They need Kenyans to pace for these people at the training, every day for four years or something like that. Sometimes you pace for them and sometimes you do your own intervals, but it depends on the coach. They don’t have to be scared. Young runners’ minds are very strong, they just have to get used to it, so to make them strong, that’s the main issue, that’s the only reason in bringing them to university and then to use them for ekidens.

A lot of Kenyans who are coming to Japan are going straight into company teams, or in some cases like Wanjiru are going from high school to a company team instead of university, whereas people like yourself and people like Mogusu decided to go on to university. That makes a bit of difference in terms of money. How did that affect your decision? Do you have the opportunity to go straight to a corporate team after high school or even when you were in Kenya? What was the advantage in choosing to go to school?

I think at the time, in 1990, there were about 4 or 5 Kenyans in Japan who were athletes. Before me there was Douglas Wakiihuri, Thomas Osano, Delilah Asiago and others. At the time I came to Japan there was no system for going into companies, because they did not know much about Kenyans. So when Otwori joined the Toyota company and ran great that’s when people started to know Kenyans are useful and good for a team. In my case, at that time I was the only Kenyan who was in high school. I was the first one, and Kennedy Manyisa who as far as I know was the second one. They saw how Kenyans were performing at the university and that’s when we opened the way to other Kenyans to join high schools, and they formed the system that you have to join the high school, and then the university, then all the companies.

But I think the change of going to high school and then the company, that thing has started recently. I think it’s no good, and I can say, “Study first, then go to companies.” Those ones who are going through university, they are better off than those ones who are going to a company direct. One thing is that you don’t have difficulties of communication. You understand the system and you know how things are going to be from the first. Yes, it’s true that somebody who has finished the high school spends four years in university and they are not paid. At my time I was given about 30,000 or 40,000 yen [a month], but now because they have improved some student runners can get even 100,000 yen for pocket money. In my time we did not know about money. We did not care about it, but we were thinking about the future. During this time, it affects you, because you are training in fullness in university after high school and someone who is coming straight into a company, there’s a big difference there because you are not earning. He is earning. That’s why I say that sometimes we lose time. Like myself, I lost time, about six years, two years in high school and four years in university. I lost a lot of time and I did not invest much, unlike somebody like Martin Mathathi who has now come and started getting the salary.

But I think there’s a difference. We may be losing our time, but some of those ones who are coming to high school, they are not very competitive. They are not very fast, so they come and they start the system and train very hard and become someone later. Like Wanjiru, when he came he was not strong. He was doing it three years, four years, and then he came to be strong. And like myself also, I was only running 29 or something like that when I came to Japan. But now the system has changed because the races are competitive. When you look at today, somebody who runs 27, in my time like if I run 29 it was a very fantastic time in Japan. The fact is the age has changed.

But another difference I can say is that while training four years after high school in university, sometimes to learn something is better. You know, it’s nice being someone able to understand, Japanese language and Japanese culture, but those who are coming straight, there are the problems they make. Some, they don’t know the income taxes, they just make calls and talk with their coaches about something they don’t understand. In that case I find that I’m very wanted because the coaches have to call me and they say, “Can you make this person to understand our system?!” So I think sometimes it’s a very big headache because, say there’s somebody who has come from Kenya. He has never been outside Kenya. He has come for the first time. He sees a lot of money. 250,000 [yen]. He’s earning that money that he has never even seen in Kenya. Then when he sees that there’s a tax of 50,000 he thinks that this money has been taken. So that’s when you have to tell him, “This is what the system is. You have to understand,” but some of them, they are difficult because some of them have no knowledge about income taxes and other things, so answers are needed.

At those times I see that it is very difficult, I see that it is very important they go to school somewhere first, and then to learn the system, better than somebody who comes direct. You spend a lot of time learning to speak and to read for four years, to understand, to communicate with your teammates. Most of them, you know, there’s no communication there with their teammates, and in those cases it’s very difficult. So I think myself, with the experience I have, I support the system of going to school first and then, go to the companies. In that case I don’t see any problem. You can cooperate easily, these people, they have known you, they are free to talk with you, they are free to make the arrangements of your training program, but someone else comes and doesn’t understand what he’s listening to and makes problems. The coach says, “Run 400 times 15,” and he says, “No, I’ve never!” Someone who has been going 400 times 10, but that’s in Kenya. In Japan it is quite different because the attitude is very strict so you have to do more, and there’s a systematic misunderstanding there.

In part two of his interview Mayaka talks about life on the corporate teams and the challenges of fitting in as a non-Japanese.

© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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