Monday, January 24, 2011

(2) Hakone Ekiden: The run of their lives

In most countries, January 2nd and January 3rd are pretty much ordinary days: the holidays are over, the decorations return to their boxes and the people return, albeit reluctantly, to their jobs and their everyday pursuits. Not in Japan, though. For starters, the New Year holidays last for a week; at least in Kanto, the eastern part of Honshu Island where Tokyo is. This week is called “matsu no uchi” (松の内), literally “within the pines” because people use pine branches for decoration; the wish for longevity is very important in Japan (as in most countries/cultures, come to think of it) and the pine is thought as a symbol of longevity since it is evergreen and does indeed live for many years.

There are all sorts of prescribed things that happen during matsu no uchi; one of the structural characteristics of the Japanese society is the “kata” (型 or 形), the “correct way of doing things” and since the first days of the new year supposedly set the pace for the next 12 months, doing specific things correctly is of particular importance. In typical Japanese fashion though, there is one event which, although also prescribed (so to speak), is not enforced by society, is not a ritual, is not related to Shinto or any other metaphysical realm, is unique in this country and it enjoys unbelievable popularity: it’s the long distance relay race called Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝).

Most people who have visited Japan know (or at least, know of) Hakone (箱根), a hot springs resort/tourist town in Kanagawa Prefecture, about 100 km southwest of Tokyo which owes its popularity to its vicinity both to the capital and Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic mountain/volcano. But what about “ekiden”? The word came into prominence during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and refers to the Japanese version of the Far West’s “Pony Express”: messengers from the Shogun’s city, Edo (present day Tokyo) would travel along the Tokaido road to the Emperor’s capital, Kyoto and would change horses at one of the 53 stations called “shukuba” (宿場) or “shukueki” (宿駅). This relay system was called “ekiden”, literally “transmission” (“den”/伝) along stations (“eki” /駅 –yes, it’s the same “eki” still in use to refer to railway stations.)

The person responsible for the modern interpretation of the ekiden (i.e. a relay race), is Kanaguri Shizo (金栗 四三, 1891-1984) one of the first Japanese marathon runners. Kanaguri thought of a long distance race that would help his compatriot runners train for a full marathon and seizing the opportunity of the 50th anniversary of the capital’s move from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1917, helped plan a relay race between the two cities, along the old Tokaido road. His idea found great support from both the academic community (which provided most of the runners) and the business world, especially from the newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun; the paper’s head of city desk, poet and linguist Toki Zenmaro (土岐 善麿, 1885-1980) was the one who thought the old word “ekiden” should be used, probably after some brainstorming sessions with Takeda Chiyosaburo (武田千代三郎, 1867-1932) then president of Jingu Kogakkan (神宮皇學館) the predecessor of Kogakkan University (皇學館大学).

The popularity that first “Tokaido Ekiden” (東海道駅伝) enjoyed, opened the gates for more races of this kind and three years later, in 1920, the first Hakone Ekiden came to be. In that first race, the runners came from four academic institutions: Waseda University (早稲田大学), Keio University (慶應義塾大学), Meiji University (明治大学) and Tokyo Takashi (東京高師) a high school which became part of today’s University of Tsukuba (筑波大学) and which had the honor of providing the first winner in the race’s history. From that day on, the race continues in an almost unbroken line (some races were cancelled during the war years) until today; the 2011 Hakone Ekiden was the 87th –for anyone interested, this year the winner was Waseda University, one of the original four.

So what is it that makes this race special? For starters, its very nature. The Hakone Ekiden, or to be more precise the “The Tokyo-Hakone University Round-Trip Relay Race” (東京箱根間往復大学駅伝競走) is a very tough course, consisting of one 108 km and one 109.9 km leg –from Tokyo’s Otemachi to Hakone’s Lake Ashi and back. Because of the length and the difficulty of the course (due to many variations in altitudes, temperatures, wind speeds etc.) the first half takes place on January 2nd and the second on January 3rd with each half broken down to five sections consisting roughly of 20 km each. The runners come from 20 universities and each team consists of 10 runners, 5 for each half of the course; this means that each day, 5 groups of 20 runners cross the south-west part of Honshu while almost 1/3 of the country’s population watches them either from up close or through Nihon TV channel’s extensive coverage.

This last part, i.e. the people’s fascination with the Hakone Ekiden, is what I believe to be the most interesting characteristic of the race. It is highly doubtful that in any other country, the general population would display such enthusiasm for an amateur sport event, especially a long distance race; let’s face it: in our rapidly-paced day and age, long distance races are not generally considered to be the most dramatic sport events. But the Japanese apparently feel different: about a month before the day of the Hakone Ekiden, advertisements related to the race start appearing in television, the press, trains, stations and various other public spots, while the media coverage thickens. You can read, see and hear all kinds of info and data about the upcoming race and you can really feel the tension building up.

The climax is, of course, the race’s start. It is early in the morning of January 2nd, usually a very cold day, and thousands of people have left the warmth of their homes and have gathered in Otemachi to see the runners take off. Camera crews, mostly from Nihon TV who is responsible for the main coverage, but from all over the country as well, shoot at everything surrounding them and the coaching teams are swarming around their athletes, college kids which aren’t professional runners and will probably never do this again in their lives. The runners are wearing diagonally across their chests a sash (the tasuki or 襷) with the school’s name on it; this is the “baton” they will relay to their teammates in Tsurumi, Yokohama after 21,4 km and is, I believe one of the things that make this event special (more on that a little later).

The race starts and, as expected, the crowd cheers and the runners are on their way, following a police and TV crew escort. But what is really incredible is that this crowd will remain as thick as it is in Otemachi for the whole length of the race, following all the peculiarities of this difficult course. From Tokyo to Tsurumi and Totsuka in Yokohama, to Hiratsuka and Odawara in Kanagawa and, finally, to Lake Ashi in Hakone, the people will be there to cheer and support the runners with shouts, handclaps, flags and banners with either their names or, more likely, the names and/or colors of their schools. And this will continue for the whole 6 hours that it usually takes to complete the first half of the race; and the next day as well in the, slightly different, route from Hakone to Tokyo.

What is it that makes all these hundreds of thousands of people (almost a million in 2009, 2010 and 2011) leave their homes early in a holiday morning and go stand for hours in the cold, packed sardine-like, just to catch a glimpse of an amateur runner and cheer –and after that, run to their homes to watch the rest of the race on TV? Certainly, for some there might be some betting money involved but, in this writer’s experience, these types aren’t usually the ones to run and cheer in the streets; not to mention that the composition of the crowd does not really spell “gamblers”. These people are normal, everyday people who obviously feel some connection with the runners.

And here, I believe, is where one can trace the race’s popularity: first of all, the percentage of college graduates is very high in Japan; this means that almost every family has some member who is, has been or will be in one of the 20 schools that participate in the race. And since belonging to a group is also one of the most characteristic traits of the Japanese society, people who have some connection with, say, Meiji University, really feel this connection; the Meiji runners are akin to family and they must be supported. Then it is the runners themselves: most of them are amateurs and they will only run once, in this race, not for money or fame but for their school –remember, they don’t relay a plastic baton but a sash with the name of their school on and in Japanese, as in most languages, the word “name” also means “reputation”. Of course the members of the winning team will be enjoying some measure of fame in their campus the next few weeks, but this hardly qualifies as a motivation for enduring such a hardship.

And this is obvious in the way they run. I mentioned earlier that long distance races are not the most dramatic sports events. And that is usually true –when the runners are professionals and do their thing in a calm, measured way. But these runners are college kids having their moment in the sun, a couple of months (or years, depending when they graduate) before they enter some big corporation and become dark-suited salary men getting squished in the subway’s morning rush hour. Therefore, it is not a rare occasion that they will try to transcend themselves (to do “muri”/ 無理 as the Japanese put it; literally “without logic/reason”) so they can relay the sash to their teammates. And, quite often, to collapse trying.

The Japanese being sensitive to over-effort and exceeding one’s limits is one reason for the race’s enormous popularity. Another reason is that, this being a relay race, it is all about teamwork; another deeply ingrained trait in the Japanese collective psyche. Yes, it is a cliché and most people who have associated with the Japanese know that they can be very self-centered both as individuals and as a society, but in a peculiar way this does not negate their highly developed sense of cooperation. And this is especially apparent in a relay race where a runner can (and will) make or break his team’s performance and this is a burden every runner has to shoulder; during the last section of the return course, the television announcer will invariably mention that “the runner is carrying the sash drenched in the sweat of his teammates”. Of course, the team’s coaches are highly responsible for putting the right runner in the right section of the race but after all it is the athletes themselves who will do the actual running and who will make the team win or lose.

Finally but no less important, the Hakone Ekiden is, I believe, a way to start the new year with a bang. Either by being there to participate (at least to some extent) or by watching it through their TV sets, the people have a chance to experience something different and spectacular in the dawn of a new year, to see the beautiful landscapes surrounding Mount Fuji, arguably their most prominent symbol and to celebrate a winner, especially a winner who is one of them: a son, a nephew, a neighbor’s or a co-worker’s grandson; in other words, a local hero. The Hakone Ekiden provides the Japanese with all the essentials for the beginning of a new cycle in their lives. And as such, it is a quintessential part of the holiday season.

Yes, the Hakone Ekiden is good for business for the universities involved. And, yes, scouts roam the country (and even, other countries) trying to spot running talent and offer scholarships in return. But still…

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