First Ekiden then everything else.
The Ekiden (駅伝), or long-distance relay race , has captured the imagination of Japanese sports culture for the past century. Passing almost unnoticed outside of Japan, the Ekiden has produced some of the fastest and most tenacious long-distance athletes in the world. The stories of struggle and surrender that lie behind the successes of each race continue to enrapture the nation; runners of corporate teams are raised to icon status and major races bring in staggering broadcast figures.
In conversation with Adharanand Finn, editor at The Guardian and author of ‘The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running’, we discuss the phenomenon of Japan’s long-distance Ekiden races, and the pervading ideals that continue to inspire each new generation of Japanese runners.
Long-distance running requires a work ethic, a discipline.
Comprised of the characters for “station” (駅) and “transmit” (伝), the Japanese Ekiden (駅伝) pays homage to the hikyaku messengers or ‘flying feet’ of the medieval and early modern Edo period. Shuttling between road stations on foot, the hikyaku couriers of medieval Japan transported currency, letters and packages across major highways connecting capital cities like Osaka and Edo. This distance spanned a total of 500 kilometres and took an average of six days to complete. However, by the end of the 17th Century, the indomitable energy and speed of these pioneer runners brought a greater expediency and efficiency to the practice. Haya hikyaku , or quick messengers, ran through the night, making fewer stops and were able to complete the journey in as little as three and a half days.
It is admirable to see a young person committed and dedicated to something that requires a lot of effort.
Tracing the Ekiden’s roots to its provenance, this notoriously challenging marathon is defined by its ruthless training and punishing demands that push both mind and body to their extremes. Run over a period of days, the Japanese Ekiden exists as one of the longest mass endurance races in the world, with each runner in the relay running the equivalent of half a marathon (219 kilometres) in each leg of the race. Drawing on the unrelenting endurance and determination of each participant, the Ekiden is perceived by corporations and universities, to be indicative of a man’s attitude to work and his place in society.
和 ( wa )
A peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, whereby individuals place the value of harmony within their community over their personal interests.
Within Japanese culture, the participation in competitive sports is believed to instil the value of social responsibility towards the wider community. In the Ekiden, the Japanese corporate system represents the ideological and administrative backbone of the sport. Sponsorship and curation of Ekiden teams by large corporations like Konika, Minolta, Honda and Toyota have supported the professional running careers of hundreds of athletes in Japan. In most cases, these teams are founded to serve as an effective form of company endorsement and to instil a sense of professional loyalty between employees.
Finn explains, ‘many companies are really into getting the best runners in the country, it’s all about bringing the company together. It goes way back to post-Second World War, when it was all about bringing people together and getting the country back on its feet.’ By aligning themselves with an Ekiden team, company spirit extends beyond the office walls, unifying the runners and workers with a strong espirit de corps. As an incredible feat of endurance and perseverance, the nature of the Ekiden resonates deeply with the Japanese philosophy of work and is often used as a yardstick by corporations and universities to measure a man’s worth and character.
You get to a point when you have learnt something – the value of responsibility towards others, society, self-motivation and self-discipline.
Persistence and the intense effort given to a task is the most highly rated measure of a man’s worth.
Invoked to motivate and inspire a spirit of perseverance, the spirit of Gambaru is deeply embedded in the country’s psyche. It reflects a reverence for hard work that exists in all aspects of Japanese life and defines the mindset of its people. Roughly translated as ‘do your best until the end’, Gambaru (頑張る), remains one of the most commonly used phrases in Japan. With sport often perceived as a form of work, participating in the Ekiden is undertaken with the same relentless dedication and commitment brought to one’s professional career.
The demonstration of commitment and perseverance remains highly valued in the sport of Ekiden. Runners exhibit the strain of their effort as proof of team loyalty and camaraderie.
This can be witnessed in the contortion of expressions and exaggerated fatigue in their movements. Finn recalls the dramatics attending an Ekiden race, “you will never see anything like it across the world. When they cross the line, there are people on hand with gas and air as if they are about to die from lack of oxygen; they are rolling around on the floor, they are crying, their teammates come and wrap them in towels and try to get them up”.
Finn remarks, “the traditional Japanese approach is to work hard”. Runners of the Ekiden are held in high admiration for their ability to endure suffering, and the spectacle of pain is perceived as testimony to a runner’s commitment . “Effort is hugely valued in Japan”, observes the author, “runners often get more coverage if their finish is dramatic. It is more important than winning”.
Dō refers to the practice of a discipline that translates into a means of self-fulfilment.
There are many philosophical and cultural concepts that underpin the spirit of the Ekiden. In the process of training, athletes endure sustained periods of strain and effort that test their commitment to a greater cause. Considered in relation to the Japanese concept of ‘the way’ , the transformative experience of physical pain is perceived as a rite towards building character, social responsibility and self-awareness. With the eyes of the nation – television cameras, newspaper journalists and spectators, trained on every runner, the elite marathon is integral to cementing the identity of the individual to himself, his team, and society.
Sport is the way towards improving yourself . So with any sport, you should the best you can and do it seriously.
In his book, ‘The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running’, Finn reflects upon the idea of running as a path to self-fulfilment. The author states that “running, too, can be a way to self-fulfilment. It has a purity, a power, a way of clearing the mind that few other activities possess. Sometimes it may seem unlikely, as we creak and struggle along, our legs heavy and tired, but then come those moments when we break through and our bodies begin to feel light, strong, at one with the earth”.
Adharanand Finn is the author of ‘The Way of the Runner: A Journey Into the Fabled World of Japanese Running’, and ‘Running with the Kenyans’, which was the Sunday Times Sports Book of the Year and won Best New Writer at the British Sports Book Awards. He is an editor at the Guardian and a freelance journalist. To research his latest book he moved to Japan to discover more about this unique running culture and what it might teach us about the sport and country. Follow him on Twitter @adharanand.
Images courtesy of – Ekiden News, Hisashi Yamazaki & Hideki Oba
Special thanks to Brett Larner, founder of Japan Running News