In 2010 Akiyama gave JRN a one-on-one interview in which he talked about everything, from the human side of his athletes to problems with foreign agents, from picking a teenaged Wanjiru up at the airport during his first trip to Japan to Japanese discrimination and denial of the need for a Kenyan presence. The complete interview will be published in three parts over the next few days. Without further ado, part one.
Stephen Mayaka told me that you have been there since the start and seen it all, that you have advised and supported all the Kenyans who have come to Japan. Could you talk about your involvement with bringing Kenyans to run here?
The first Kenyans came about 25 years ago. In those days it wasn’t a question of who we were going to pick, more just of going to Kenya and watching to see what the people and environment were like. At that point it was the fall, November, and I watched a cross-country race on a Sunday. There were some superb Kenyan athletes in the race and I thought, “We have to get someone like this to run for Yamanashi Gakuin.” This was before Yamanashi Gakuin had ever made the Hakone Ekiden. If we got close one year we’d be far from it the next. We would never have become a regular without the Kenyans.
Joseph Otwori and Kennedy Manyisa were the first two we brought. Joseph was a very high-level athlete who had run the World XC Jr. race on the Kenyan team. Soon after arriving in Japan he improved rapidly. We recruited Kennedy because we didn’t want Otwori to be lonely. I think that was a good idea. He was weak, so while the Japanese runners couldn’t keep up with Otwori in workouts they could run together with Kennedy. Because of him, Yamanashi Gakuin’s level shot up in just one year. The first year those two came, they got here just before summer, so that winter we couldn’t make Hakone. The first time we qualified we were 15th. The next year we were 11th. The first year Otwori and Kennedy actually ran, nowadays you can only have one foreigner but back then it was two, we finished 7th. 7th, then 4th, then 2nd, then we won. It didn’t take that many years for us to get to the point of being able to win, and that was because Kennedy wasn’t really that fast. Otwori was here [places an orange to his left] and aiming even higher, while Kennedy was here [places another orange to his right] with the rest of the team. Between them the team’s level went way up.
They didn’t race only in Japan. One year, I think it was the year they graduated, we went to an ekiden in Canada. The athletes who didn’t run Hakone, that is. It went from Jasper to Banff, something like 360 km, and you had to run it within 24 hours. At that point, I think it was the first time we went, but we won it. The marathoner Tsuyoshi Ogata was on that team. There were a lot of Canadian teams. At first it was pretty hard for us, but after two or three years Yamanashi Gakuin’s level was much higher and the Canadians fell further and further behind. They ended up putting together one Canadian national team after a few years, but no luck. We did that ekiden for around seven years, and after the ekiden we’d go to do the Harry Jerome Invitational track meet in Vancouver on the way back. Most of our guys ran 5000 and 10000 m PBs there, a sign of how much our level was improving. We won Hakone three times and were able to recruit a lot of top high school runners, so many strong guys that not making Hakone became unthinkable. But even so, regardless of whether they were strong or weak when they joined Yamanashi Gakuin, by the time they were seniors they were better.
Samuel Wanjiru and our runner Mekubo Job Mogusu who graduated last year are the same age. They were in the same year of school, so when they came to start school they arrived in Japan one day apart. Wanjiru came on May 4, Mogusu on May 5. I was the one who went to pick them both up.
In high school they raced a lot and Mogusu usually beat Wanjiru at 5000 m. In university Mogusu could lap the whole field over 10000 m, but even in high school Wanjiru was strong at 10000 m. He was strong at the half marathon too, 58 minutes. Mogusu ran 59. I think from that you can see part of the difference between them, what sets Wanjiru apart from Mogusu. He also moved up to the marathon early, winning in Fukuoka and then Beijing. Now Wanjiru and some of the young Ethiopians, in my opinion they have the strength to be running 2:04 for the marathon.
Until last year we had Mogusu winning the Second Stage at Hakone. Even if we were slow on the First Stage, Mogusu would take the Second Stage and we would be in the lead, and from there we were in a good position to tackle the rest of Hakone. But this year we had a Japanese runner on Second Stage instead of a Kenyan, and when we put Cosmas Ondiba in on Third Stage he didn’t really try his hardest. As a result we’ve earned a reputation of being a team that is worthless without a good Kenyan to pick up the slack. All-Japanese teams that worked hard could beat us. So even though we finished 3rd I think it’s a good thing that we created that sort of impression in other teams.
Cosmas was only 2nd on his stage, but I think he’s better than that. Looking at his runs in half marathons in Sapporo, for example, up until the last 600 m he was running a good time. He just hasn’t had the Hakone run he’s capable of. If he can put it together I think he’s strong enough to win his stage.
He ran extremely well, just a few seconds off Mogusu’s course record, in the Kanto Regional University Track and Field Championships half marathon last May.
That’s right, but after that in Sapporo and later on in July he was only so-so. In Sapporo he just lost out to Nihon University’s ace Daniel Gitau. So, with a bad year behind him I think it will carry over and translate into a better season this year.
I don’t think Daniel can run a marathon. He’s too big. I think he can be good up to 5000 m or 10000 m. When he runs a half marathon he’s a minute slower than Mogusu. Mogusu, though, has plenty of potential to be a success at the marathon. He’s got a small body and his half marathon time is pretty good, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he ran 2:07. Well, hang on, his half marathon time is mid-59? 2:08, maybe 2:07, no problem. At that level he would manage in a tactical race with a lot surging. But did you see Fukuoka last year? [laughs] He’s not strong enough yet. He underestimates the marathon.
Wanjiru went straight into the jitsugyodan world, and that’s a very different thing from going to university. At the jitsugyodan level there’s a lot more competition, but at the student level it’s friendlier. That’s one big difference. Wanjiru succeeded at the marathon because he was trained in Japan. He would never have been able to do this kind of running if he had stayed in Kenya. Athletes raised in Kenya don’t have the same kind of mental toughness. They come here and they learn discipline, focus, they begin to understand gaman. Absolutely do not make a move before 30 km and the like. From 30 to 35 km everything is going to change, that’s something Wanjiru learned in Japan. He grew up Japanese.
Do you think that is part of why every Kenyan man who has won an Olympic marathon medal has been Japanese-trained?
You know Daniel Njenga? Njenga is tough. He’s nothing special over 10000 m, but he has persistence. He can hang on. He was good enough to be an Olympic marathoner. There are few people that level in Kenya, but he couldn’t get onto an Olympic team because he was in Japan. He ran great in Chicago and Tokyo.
Another one to talk about, he has gone back to Kenya now but used to run for S&B, is Douglas Wakiihuri. He learned about the marathon at S&B, that a true marathoner has gaman, gaman. Erick Wainaina as well, he doesn’t have any speed but he won [Olympic marathon] medals twice. I think the Kenyan federation feels that when it comes to their marathon team they should pick runners who train in Japan. At least one out of the three.
Douglas Wakiihuri came when Kiyoshi Nakamura was still in charge of S&B. Douglas was a 1500 m runner, a sub-4 man. He came from Kenya to a training camp in Australia or New Zealand and saw S&B and wanted to join. In those days S&B had Toshihiko Seko, Hisatoshi Shintaku and other great runners, and most of them were marathoners. Yutaka Kanai, too, but he was killed in a traffic accident. There were a lot of good people like that. Running together with them he learned about inner strength, because all he did was run with marathoners. They didn’t run 5000 m or 10000 m, just the marathon. I think being on a team like that was what made Douglas become strong.
People can’t run like that as soon as they come from Kenya. We understand that, but looking at someone like Mogusu, the idea that, “OK, I shouldn’t make a move before 30 km,” if he understands that then great, but what he says versus what he really understands…In Fukuoka I really think he was planning to win. [laughs] He’s Kenyan. Even though that short Ethiopian was running,
Yes, him. Even though he was there I’m sure Mogusu thought, “Hey, if I run this I’m going to win.” I believe that was his plan.
Then he dropped out around 23 km.
That’s right! [laughs] How far did he run in the Hakone Ekiden every year? About 23 km. That shows that for men, they have to do at least 35 km in training. 30 km for women, because they get hurt if they do too many 40 km runs. You should run that much like once in three days. It doesn’t have to be fast, but you need to run that much or else you won’t be able to do a marathon.
In Ethiopia or Kenya, they often have one good race and then never again. There are a lot of athletes who have one fast race and then can’t run that way again. Wanjiru has been very consistent, again and again, and there has never been someone like him from Kenya before. Not in Ethiopia either. The Ethiopian who won Fukuoka [Kebede] is also unusual in how amazingly constant he is.
Comparing Ethiopia and Kenya, Kenya has incredible depth of talent. Ethiopia less so, but the athletes they have can run. Ethiopia is strong at the 10000, the 5000 and of course the marathon, but looking at the pure numbers of international-level athletes there are relatively few, both for men and women. In Kenya there are a lot. You never know who is going to pop up next. The Kenyans we bring are not people who have always been the best. They come to Japan, and after two or three years of training they go up, up, up. When Mogusu was in high school he wasn’t any good as a first-year, but his second and third years he was very strong. Once he went to university he was usually the top in all the big meets, Kanto Regionals and Nationals. Cosmas might not be capable of that.
He and Mogusu come from the same tribe, Kisii. The Kisii region is close to Lake Victoria, about seven hours by car from Nairobi. The altitude is quite high and the area has a lot of top-level athletes, Olympic medalists and the like. Most of the top Kenyans are Kalenjin, but Kalenjin runners don’t really come to Japan. The ones who come here are mostly Kikuyu, like Wanjiru. We started getting Kikuyu runners two or three years before we found Wanjiru. Recently they’ve all started doing more organized altitude training, so we’ve begun to see Kikuyu Olympic medalists alongside the other top tribes like Kalenjin, Kisi and Kamba.
Part of their strength is of course the altitude itself, but the area where they run has a lot of up-down and the roads are bad because they’re just made of dirt, so they do a lot of cross-country and uphill running. With all of that natural strengthening in them, once they come to Japan and get on our excellent roads in good shoes they produce superb times. In all of Kenya there are only two tartan-surfaced tracks, one in a large stadium in Nairobi…I forget where the other one is, but there are only two. Most Kenyan runners never get a chance to train at either one. They’re mostly doing speedwork on dirt-surface tracks, and although shoes are becoming more common a lot of them always run barefoot.
Some of the people who came here from circumstances like this are Nihon University’s Gitau, and one guy the same age as Mogusu who went to Sera H.S. and is now going into a jitsugyodan team, Samuel Nganga. Nganga has what it takes here [thumps chest].
Looking at the Japanese university and jitsugyodan running world, 15 years ago there was a wider variety of nationalities than now, when you almost exclusively see Kenyans and Ethiopians.
The Moroccans who came here were very weak, the ones who came in high school. Some South Africans came to race. They ran Fukuoka and were very strong, but I don’t think any lived here. South Africa is just too far from Japan. If you look at their faces, South Africans, Kenyans, Tanzanians, you can’t tell them apart. Tanzanians, Kenyans and Ugandans, they all look the about same, and they all speak Swahili. Ethiopians are different. Their faces have a different shape with a more pronounced nose. They look good. [laughs] Their heads are a little longer rather than round. If Arabs were darker-skinned, that’s what they’d look like. So, it’s easy to tell Kenyans and Ethiopians apart by looking, even though they are both Africans.
Culturally, too. Even though they are just a little different geographically, there is a wall between them. You can’t fly to Addis Ababa from Nairobi. I was planning to do that once when I went there. [laughs] I had gone to scout some Kenyans and I thought, “Let’s go see some Ethiopians while we’re here,” but it was impossible. There’s no direct route. If you fly somewhere far away like Dubai and transfer then you can go to Ethiopia. It makes it seem like Ethiopia is a long way away. You can get to Tanzania quickly either by car or by air. Uganda as well, but in both of those countries it’s hard to make a living. Tanzania has produced some excellent athletes like Juma Ikangaa.
You have to be careful about where the athletes are from when you selecting them. It’s not about just taking anyone who looks fast, whether they are Kenyan or Tanzanian. The environment in which they grew up has a big effect. Even if the person is Kenyan, if he is born and brought up in Nairobi they simply look black. They can’t run. There was a guy like that once. His father was the ambassador and he asked me to take his son, so we did. [laughs] He looked fast! But he couldn’t run at all.
The first time I went to Kenya everybody looked fast, as if you could tell just by looking at them. When you see them at a race of course only the fast guys are really fast. How fast are they compared to a Japanese runner? I couldn’t tell. If you put a Japanese runner into that environment then you’d know. If you took a Japanese baby and raised them in that environment then just like their color would be different from everyone else so would their strength.
In the early days I took one Japanese university runner who had won his stage at the Hakone Ekiden run a cross-country race in Kenya. He was living over there, doing a semester abroad and training with Kenyans. When he ran there were about 120 runners in the 12 km senior race. 120 runners, and there was false start. No sound from the gun, but half the field just rocketed out while the other half stayed standing there. [laughs] Everyone was frantically waving their arms saying, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” It took 2 km before they could get everyone to stop, and it was another 10 minutes before they could get them back and restart. Even with those extra kilometers in their legs, 100 of them shot out again. There were about three people behind the Japanese runner, and he was a Hakone Ekiden stage winner. “Oh, this is what level he really is,” I thought. Everyone ahead of him was good enough to win a Hakone Ekiden stage.
Mogusu later ran that race too and even he was 30th or 40th. If Wanjiru had been there it would have been the same with him. Well, maybe a little higher because he is very strong, but there are lots of other people there with around the same ability. One other thing is that they run on uneven surfaces. All the Kenyans in Japan train on good roads. Clean, smooth, and they feel good under your shoes. It’s very hard for them to go back to Kenya and do well in the cross-country races there.
I remember reading an interview with Wanjiru where he said that the best thing about living in Japan was getting to run on perfect roads.
[laughs] I’m sure. If he tried to run cross-country in Kenya it would be a disaster. He’s terrible at it. Hard to understand when he’s as strong as he is. But the roads there are like horse tracks. No good at all. But Wanjiru likes Japanese roads, huh? Hmmn.
You said that few Kalenjin runners come to Japan but that you bring over a lot of Kikuyu. How do you find runners and recruit them?
The way we do it, at first we go over and watch cross-country races. The contact we have in Kenya who introduces us to prospective runners is originally Kisii, and through him we found Otwori and Kerochi, another Olympian. They were high schoolers then. Their times were pretty good in the workouts we saw, but Kerochi wasn’t interested in coming to Japan and we thought Otwori might get lonely. That was how we selected Kennedy Manyisa. After that we always had Kisii athletes, but then after Mayaka we had Kikuyu. Two of them, but looking at their times they didn’t run well. In terms of ability they were the best runners we had had up until then, but they didn’t improve at all. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but I think it may have been because the Kikuyu live in an area with a lot wide-open spaces near Nairobi, kind of a country area around Mt. Kenya about two hours from the Nile River. Their way of thinking was very different, and I think it kept them from adjusting. As a result, we went back to Kisii athletes, including Mogusu and Cosmas.
They went to the same school, one that has produced other good runners but is now gone. Mayaka, Mogusu, Otwori, Cosmas, they all went to the same school, Kiyomiti School in Kisii along with Olympians like Osano. Even though he was getting older, Osano still won a medal, silver, I think in the 5000 at the Tokyo World Championships. Also in the 10000 and marathon, a lot of good athletes came out of there. But, the people who guided them all are dead now, murdered like a lot of other people when things go bad there. Things have been better recently, but it still happens from time to time. Since the teacher and especially the principal of the Kiyomiti school were killed the level of the athletes around the Kisii area has fallen.
There are also some Kamba runners here, both men and women. They are strong. JAL’s Kenyan is a Kamba. He came as a junior, and I think he’s 20 now. Very tough. He’s been here about three years now and is just starting to round into mature shape. In that sense he’s representative of the kind of athlete we look for, someone who is going to progress and develop.
The reason Kalenjin generally don’t come to Japan is there is no pipeline established between them and Japan. There are so many of them who are so good that they do just fine staying based in Kenya. I don’t think they really see any need to come here. There are two or three Kalenjin in Japan right now, one on the Kyudenko team Paul Tanui. Tanui is a Kalenjin name. He is an extremely good athlete. Mayaka found him. He hasn’t done much on the jitsugyodan ekiden circuit yet but give him a year and he’s going to be great.
Looking at this year’s New Year Ekiden, Toyota’s Kenyan John Thuo is also a Kalenjin. They replaced their previous runner and decided to pick up a Kalenjin. He’s good. Suzuki’s Martin Mathathi and Komori Corporation’s Josphat Ndambiri are Olympic or World Championships-level athletes, along with Nissin’s Gideon Ngatuny. Very high-level people. I don’t know what happened to Gideon this year. He should have been a lot faster than he was. He was over in Kenya and came back right before the ekiden, and I think he expected that he could still just go bang! He shouldn’t have been in Kenya right before an important race like that.
Toyota’s first Kenyan was Otwori, then later they had Simon Maina, but the people they were taking on kept getting slower and slower. Their guy now [Thuo] is the fifth or sixth one. They’ve had a lot of turnover, with some people just staying for a year. Thuo ran well at the New Year Ekiden this year, but the rest of the team after him was not so hot.
Last year I went to the U.S. in April and May for races in San Francisco and Los Angeles. There were some good people there. I took a female athlete [World Half Marathon Championships silver medalist Philes Ongori], but she blew it. The men had better results. Nissin’s Yuki Sato did a great job of working with the Kenyan pacemakers and ran under 27:40, a PB, but the women ran terribly. Last time it was the other way around, great performances from the women and the men were weak. Like the Americans; their women medalled at 10000 m in Beijing and at the Osaka World Championships, two strong women. I’ve kind of expected those two to start having those kinds of results. I think the stronger one is based out East in, what, New York? And the other one is West somewhere.
Right. I think Shalane Flanagan is good enough to run 68, 67 minutes for the half marathon if you look at her 10000 m performances. 67 seems likely.
Looking again at the jitsugyodan and student runner systems, of course the corporate runners are receiving a salary, but what is the situation for the high and university runners Yamanashi Gakuin is bringing over?
When we first started bringing Kenyans over there were very few on teams where they would be getting paid. In high school they are not receiving money. At the point when they come over for high school they are not really the kind of athlete who could go right into a corporate team. Wanjiru and Mogusu as well, when they came for high school they were only so-so. When an athlete goes to a company straight from high school it doesn’t usually work. One of Nissin’s runners [Ngatuny] came after he graduated from high school and the other [Julius Gitahi] after junior high school. Coming straight out of junior high school or coming out of high school, that’s three years’ difference. You’re talking about a totally different level.
Looking more at Nissin, their runner Gitahi graduated from the Japanese high school Sendai Ikuei. He was very strong, an Olympian in Sydney on the track. For a long time he was the only Kenyan in Kanto on a jitsugyodan team. Others were coming for high school and university. Now the runners that level coming out of high school, the kind who would be running World Junior XC, are mostly thinking about skipping university. I think that’s a big problem for them. Everyone around them is getting paid, but if they go to university they’re not going to get any money. I think that’s a tough situation. We’ve had Mogusu, Mayaka, Otwori at Yamanashi Gakuin, and none of them was strong when they arrived. They all got better in high school and university, so I can’t really say that money was the first thing in their minds.
When we bring people over we are not necessarily looking for just the fastest person we can get. We’re looking for someone with a good amount of heart and brains. And they are out there. Samuel Nganga, for example. He has a lot of heart and is a good person but he’s not so fast. Fast enough to enter a jitsugyodan team, of course, even if not one in Kanto. I think he entered one in Chugoku, Mazda, I believe.
He ran as pacemaker at Hofu last December.
That’s good, that’s the right level for him, pacemaking a race. You can make money as a pacemaker. Maybe $2000 - $3000 for that level. And sometimes they keep going all the way. But anyway, he is the kind of athlete I was talking about. He wasn’t that strong, but he was completely serious about his running. After running at Sera H.S. he got much better because everyone there is serious. After that we looked at getting him onto the Chugoku Denryoku team, but the salary there was pretty low. [laughs] That had to figure into the calculations, of course. Another company offered better money so he went there. We always wanted him to go to Chugoku Denryoku because there are a lot of good runners there and he could have picked up their strength and knowledge. I think that would have been better. Where he is now, in Hiroshima, there’s another runner, a good one, Joseph, who won the 10 km First Stage of the National High School Ekiden.
There’s another aspect to it. When you enter a company after graduation, if you are Japanese you work there until you are an old man or old woman and would never quit. If you compare their annual salary it’s much lower when you first join the company. There are some people who don’t like that idea and will quit, but it’s all just in your way of thinking. If you work hard right from the beginning you’re going to earn more and more money. That’s part of why there are one-year contracts for runners, so that they can easily negotiate up. Of course, if they’re not doing well then a company might not renew the contract. And this is also a time when they might have an agent calling them from off to the side, maybe telling them if they want to run in the Olympics they have to sign with him, or maybe the problems with boyfriends or girlfriends we talked about earlier will come into play. It’s best to look at all these things carefully.
I think Kenyans are lucky to spend the period where you grow the most as an athlete, from 16 to 23, the time when you are going to learn and mature the most, in Japan. Even though most of them are going to go back to Kenya. You might think that’s an obvious thing to say about that period, but you have to do your homework and studies during those years. There will be a bigger merit that you would expect. If you study more and learn to understand the language then it will have a large impact on your life. Your life will change. But there are people out there deceiving Kenyans these days. Bringing over lots of them, telling them they’re going to make a lot of money. The runners don’t know the actual circumstances, so it’s easy to deceive them. I believe that is happening.
Are most Kenyans running for schools actually students or are they more like paid pros?
You mean do they have to go to classes? Well, there are ones who can learn and ones who can’t, but at Yamanashi Gakuin they have to study. They are going to school. Whether they can learn anything or not depends on the individual. [laughs] I think most Kenyan student runners are actually studying. There was one high school which expelled a Kenyan after a year or two because he just didn’t go to classes, but I think that’s wrong. If a school brings a Kenyan they should make them attend classes and make sure they graduate. Of course it’s hard because the classes are being taught using totally unfamiliar words, especially at the high school level. Sending them back because they aren’t fast enough or because they are rude are different things, and whether they are rude depends on how you educate them. The school or coach are the ones who made them that way, and they are responsible for it.
Right now universities which have foreign runners include more or less just Yamanashi Gakuin, Nihon and Daiichi Kogyo. It seems as though 10 or 15 years ago more schools had them.
Asia University had an Ethiopian at one point. Where else? Njenga and Muitai went to Ryutsu Keizai University for four years and graduated. Njenga and Muitai both went there from Sendai Ikuei H.S. Ryutsu Keizai wasn’t a team that could make the Hakone Ekiden, so neither of them ever ran Hakone. If he had, Njenga would have run the same stage as Mayaka, the Second Stage, all four years. But he was weak in high school so he couldn’t go to a top university. Ndambiri only finished high school. He wanted money and you can’t get that in university. Ndambiri and Cyrus Njui did go to university for two years, but some jitsugyodan coaches were looking for good Kenyans so Ndambiri went to Komori Corporation and Cyrus to Nissan. The poor school thought it might be going to Hakone before that. [laughs] Cyrus is a very, very serious man who cares about helping the whole team, so if he had stayed I think they would have made it.
Cyrus went to Nissan and then won the Sapporo International Half Marathon. After he won, Nissan was having a lot of financial trouble and they shut down the ekiden team. After that he went to another team [Hitachi Cable]. I don’t think he’s gone back to Kenya, but I might be wrong.
In part two of the interview Akiyama talks about one of his prize charges, 2009 World Half Marathon silver medalist Philes Ongori, rails on the problems inherent in dealing with foreign agents, and offers advice to foreign runners seeking to join Japanese corporate teams.
© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved