• Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Akemi Masuda

    Main Guest

    Sports journalist Masuda is a former Olympic marathon runner. After setting a number of Japanese long-distance records as a high-school student, Masuda traveled to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles with high expectations for a medal in the marathon, but sadly was ultimately unable to finish the race. She retired in 1992 having chalked up 12 Japanese and two world records. Alongside her writing, Masuda's diverse media activities include commentary roles on radio and TV, as well as public-speaking engagements. She also holds a professorship at Osaka University of Arts.


June 2, 2016


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In many countries around the world, the long, lazy New Year’s vacation is a time for relaxing at home, glued to the sofa and snacking on the leftovers of the year’s festive feast. Japan is no exception, and in another parallel with certain other parts of the globe, sports often feature heavily in the holiday TV schedule. 

But in contrast to the leisurely regimen of darts coverage that once typically accompanied the cold turkey sandwiches and stale mince pies in this writer’s British household, January 2–3 each year consistently finds almost 30 percent of Japanese homes tuned to a rather more energetic spectacle as they polish off the last of the traditional New Year’s osechi ryori.

The event in question is the annual Hakone Ekiden, a grueling two-day relay race in which teams of university students compete over the 10 stages of the 200-km-plus round trip between Tokyo’s Otemachi, and picturesque Hakone, in the hills near Mount Fuji.

With a history dating back to 1920, the event has even been called "one of the world’s three great road races," and continues to capture the imagination of the general public thanks to its strong team ethos, and dramatic stories such as the seemingly improbable consecutive triumphs in 2015 and 2016 of Aoyama Gakuin (a school not previously known for running prowess), or the emergence several years ago of Yuki Kawauchi, now a civil servant who trains and runs without sponsorship, winning renown for his amazing achievements outside Japan’s established framework of university and corporate teams.

credit_nippontaikudaigaku.jpgHeld each January, the Hakone Ekiden is a two-day relay event for university students. 

Photo: Nippon Sport Science University 

aflophoto_hakoneekiden.jpgThe Hakone Ekiden attracts sizeable audiences, both at trackside and on national television.

Photo: AFLO/Yomiuri

For many readers, long-distance running may not necessarily be the first discipline that springs to mind when asked to name sports they closely associate with Japan. But marathoner Shizo Kanaguri was one of only two athletes sent by Japan to its first Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, and since then around a third of Japan’s medals in athletics have come in the 42.195-km marathon. 

Perhaps the most memorable of these was when Kokichi Tsuburaya claimed marathon bronze at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, cementing an enthusiasm for the event in the popular consciousness. These days Japan is the setting for a staggering 2,000 annual long-distance events, which invite participation from both amateurs and top-level pros. As Japan’s population continues to age, there are even meets aimed at senior citizens, such as Kyoto’s International Gold Masters, a multi-event tournament that includes a 5,000-meter event for competitors in their 80s and over.


Naoko Takahashi claimed marathon gold for Japan at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. 
Photo: AFLO


Mizuki Noguchi won marathon gold for Japan at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Photo: AFLO


On this edition of Japanology Plus, Peter goes for a jog with sports journalist and former Olympic marathon runner Akemi Masuda.

Between these numerous marathons, half-marathons, ekiden, cross-country races, and other long-distance competitions, millions of Japanese are thought to compete in such events each year. And they are joined by many thousands more who run on a regular basis for fitness. In this edition of Japanology Plus, host Peter Barakan is joined by former Olympian Akemi Masuda on a jog around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, a particularly popular route that is now dotted with special facilities at which runners can change, shower, and even rent sneakers and other running gear -- a particularly useful service for busy office workers who are squeezing a quick workout into their lunch hour.


Japan has over 2,000 regular long-distance running events, including marathons.    

But what lies behind the popularity of long-distance running in this country? There seems to be no single reason: for some the grit and determination required to push oneself through the endurance barrier is an extension of the stoic, solitary focus on discipline and preparation that characterizes many martial arts, along with traditional crafts such as calligraphy; for others, as reporter Matt Alt discovers on his trip to a local event in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan, it is the enthusiastic cheers of the assembled supporters; and many members of corporate teams might find motivation from the desire not to let their teammates down.

Whatever the reasoning, Japan’s passion for running shows no sign of diminishing, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics seems likely to push this national enthusiasm to even greater heights. For fitness-mad visitors and foreign residents looking to explore Japan from a different angle, could participation in one of the nation's many regular long-distance running events be the perfect solution? 

Matt checks out a local running event held each spring in Atsumi, Yamagata Prefecture.

Also appearing

Shuhei Mito

A corporate runner employed by a major retail chain as he aims for a place in the Japan team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Duncan Muthee

Seven-year Japan resident Muthee, from Kenya, also represents a corporate running team. 


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