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Local Race Organizers Can't Find Solution to Problems of Declining and Aging Population

by Daisuke Tsujioka

A road running race in Shonai, Yamagata that used to celebrate the full bloom of the area's cherry blossoms will no longer be held. The race had become a local tradition, but its cancelation is said to be due to a serious problem facing rural areas across the country.

The Atsumi Sakura Road Race began in 1986 in hopes of attracting more tourists to the area, home of the famous 1200-year-old Atsumi Onsen hot spring southwest of Tsuruoka. Held in mid to late April, every year over a thousand runners from all parts of Japan take part. Starting and finishing at Atsumi Onsen, the event includes 30 km, 10 km, 5 km and 2 km races, following the cherry blossom-lined banks of the Omni River and giving runners the chance to soak in the atmosphere of the historic hot spring town and the cheers of its local residents.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic the race was not held for four years from 2020 to 2023. Pandemic restrictions were lifted last May, but from the early stages of planning for the event's return this year its organizing committee faced two tough challenges: the decline of the area's population and the aging of those who remain. According to organizers, the event's staff is drawn from 13 community associations in areas through which the race's course passes. But the organizers have been told by a number of the community associations that they have not been able to recruit enough people, and that "local citizens are getting older, and that makes it harder for them to take part."

The Atsumi area of Tsuruoka used to be an independent village. It received that status in 1938, and in 2005 merged with five other municipalities, Tsuruoka, Fujishima, Haguro, Kushihiki and Asahi. Its onsen area is located far from the city center near the border with Niigata. According to national census and local government figures, in 1985 the year before the race began, the village of Atsumi had a population of 13,255. At the time of the municipal merger 20 years later in 2005 it had fallen to 9,641. Last year it was down to 6,192.

A 34% decline in the 18 years since the merger, the demographic changes have been especially severe in Atsumi and Asahi. Not only have recent high school graduates and people in their early 20s been moving out of the area, but in combination with the resulting decrease in birth rate and increasing number of deaths among the aging population the rate of decline is actually accelerating.

According to Atsumi Sakura Road Race executive committee chair Masami Igarashi, 50, personnel requirements to fill the roles of operational staff volunteers, course marshals and drink table workers add up to about 350 people. "The area has lost about half of its residents in the 20-to-50 age group, the core demographic supporting the event's operation," said Igarashi.

A rapid increase in costs has been an additional blow. Igarashi said that the costs of timing equipment, sports drinks, participants' t-shirts and staff uniforms have increased by a factor of 1.3 compared to pre-corona pricing.

After the race most of the runners go to the famous hot spring to enjoy a soothing bath, making the race a chance for the area to show its hospitality. Race organizers fear that any kind of accident during the race caused by them having to cut corners to make up for staff shortages and cost overruns would do irreparable damage to the good reputation that the hot spring town has built up. Given the insurmountable challenges in holding the race up to the same standards as in the past, they made the decision that the only option was to discontinue it.

Igarashi himself ran the Atsumi Sakura Road Race when he was in junior high school and high school, and he started working on the organizing committee when he was 28. It's an event that has given him good memories for decades. "We're trying to find a way to put together a new event to replace the Atsumi Sakura Road Race, but without enough people to put it on it will be tough," he said. "The population here is only going to keep declining, so it's hard to see any solution to the basic problem."

The race's organizing committee will be formally disbanded in March.

source article:
translated by Brett Larner

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Same experience here. We had an ecomarathon on Sagi Island in the Seto Inland Sea, it also fell victim to the aging population, Sagi now has only 650 inhabitants, down from 2000. Let's hope the Sagishima Triathlon ( will survive!
Dave Fujiwara said…
Hi, I’m wondering if you have a listing of interesting, scenic and special road races in Japan.
Brett Larner said…
No way out, really.

No, sorry, I don't have a list like that. You could try the Runnet top 100 races.

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