Japan's Olympic marathoners

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at the history of marathon running in Japan - their only athletic medal of 1964.

Legend has it that the marathon originates from the Battle of Marathon that took place in 490 BC. After the Athenian army won the battle against the Persians, a young messenger soldier ran approximately 40km from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens to convey news of the victory, only to collapse and die of exhaustion soon after. To pay tribute to the legend, a 40km marathon race was held for men at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896.

In years gone by, the marathon was said to have been one of Japan’s strongest events, with a number of Japanese runners having demonstrated a strong presence at the Olympic Games. For the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, three men - NAKAMURA Shogo, HATTORI Yuma, and OSAKO Suguru - and three women - MAEDA Honami, SUZUKI Ayuko, and ICHIYAMA Mao - have been selected to represent Japan with high hopes placed on them.

But can they fare any better than those who ran the distance before them?

Japan make their debut

The Olympic Games Stockholm 1912 was the first Olympic Games in which Japan took part. One of the two athletes that made up Japan’s Olympic Team was marathon runner KANAKURI Shizo, aged 20 at the time.

Although many Japanese had high hopes for him, Kanakuri passed out from hypothermia mid-race and was cared for by a local farming family. Embarrassed by being unable to complete the race, he quietly returned to Japan without informing race officials. He became known as 'the vanished Japanese runner' among the locals.

In 1967, the 55th anniversary of the Stockholm 1912 Games, Kanakuri was invited by the Swedish Olympic Committee to return to Stockholm and celebrate the milestone by "finishing" the race - which he did.

He ran through the finish line more than half a century after starting, clocking 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds to finally complete his marathon.

Tokyo 1964

At the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, Japan earned their first post-war Olympic medal in athletics, and it was TSUBURAYA Kokichi who accomplished the feat in the men’s marathon.

Tsuburaya entered the National Stadium in Tokyo to complete the final lap in second place, but was overtaken at the last by Britain’s Basil Heatley. The Japanese flag was raised into the air during the medal ceremony as Tsuburaya became the only Japanese athletics medallist at Tokyo 1964.

Despite having been a hopeful marathoner alongside Tsuburaya, KIMIHARA Kenji finished eighth, but took revenge four years later at Mexico 1968 by clinching silver with a time of 2:23:31.

Having gained medals at two consecutive Olympic Games, Japan began to establish a glowing reputation for being an emerging powerhouse in the marathon event.

What happened next

By the 1980s, Japan marathon runners were regular competitors on the international circuit.

The SO brothers - Shigeru and Takeshi - both competed in the men’s marathon at Los Angeles 1984, with Takeshi finishing fourth. NAKAYAMA Takemichi emulated the feat by coming fourth at Seoul four years later.

SEKO Toshihiko regularly topped the podium at major competitions in Japan and abroad, winning 10 races out of 15, and is often regarded as one of the finest marathon runners to have competed for Japan, despite missing out on medals at Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988.

Although Japan had failed to achieve an Olympic podium finish throughout the 1970s and 80s, hopes were high the 24 year wait would finally come to an end at Barcelona 1992 - and MORISHITA Koichi duly obliged by winning silver for Japan.

Morishita, who had been nurtured under the tutelage of the So brothers, was on course to win gold after engaging in a neck-and-neck battle with HWANG Young-cho from the Republic of Korea from around the 30km point, but fell agonisingly close as he lost the race on the final slope.

Despite obvious disappointment, Morishita still made history as he became the first athlete from Japan to win an Olympic medal since Kimihara at Mexico City 1968.


Women's marathon included in the Games

The women’s marathon was included in the Olympic programme for the first time at Los Angeles 1984.

In the early years, MASUDA Akemi, hailed as an exciting prospect, and MIYAHARA Misako, who became an Olympian at Seoul 1988, rose to the challenge, but found the reality was tough going.

But just four years later, at Barcelona 1992, ARIMORI Yuko wrote her name in the record books. After a fierce one-on-one battle against Valentina Egorova (representing the then Unified Team of former Soviet Union countries), Arimori clinched silver with a time of 2:32:49, only eight seconds behind the gold medallist, becoming Japan’s first-ever female marathon medallist in the process.

From this point onward, Japan’s women’s marathon entered a golden age.

At Atlanta 1996, Arimori earned a bronze medal to become the first Japanese female athlete to win a medal at consecutive Olympic Games, and this feat was followed by TAKAHASHI Naoko, who became the first Japanese female Olympic athletics gold medallist with a victory at the Sydney 2000 Games with a time of 2:23:14 - an Olympic record.

The glory continued at Athens 2004: NOGUCHI Mizuki held on to her lead as Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba closed the gap behind her, and won Japan’s second consecutive Olympic marathon gold medal. It was the fourth medal acquired in a row by Japan’s female marathoners.


Towards Tokyo 2020

Japan has not been able to earn any medals in the marathon at recent Olympic Games, despite having once earned a sterling reputation in the event.

Japan’s last marathon medal was the gold won by Noguchi at Athens 2004, and the last time a male marathon runner emerged with an Olympic medal is even further back, with Morishita’s silver at Barcelona 1992. One major factor contributing to this disappointing run of results is the rise of athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia, who have now dominated the long-distance medal placings for several years.

Amid the ongoing ordeal for Japanese marathoners, the qualification process was revamped for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

For both the men’s and women’s marathon, two out of three spots were allocated to the first and second finishers in the one-shot qualification race held in Japan in September 2019. NAKAMURA Shogo and HATTORI Yuma secured the men’s berths, with MAEDA Honami and SUZUKI Ayuko booking the women’s places.

The third and final spots, one each for the men’s and women’s marathon, were decided in consideration of performances over three domestic races. It was OSAKO Suguru and ICHIYAMA Mao who earned these berths for the men’s and women’s races respectively.

In October 2018, Osako broke the Japanese record, which had been set by SHITARA Yuta earlier in the same year for the first time in 16 years, and went on to achieve a new Japanese record in March 2020 by finishing with a time of 2:05:29 at a qualification race.

Meanwhile, in a women’s race in March 2020, Ichiyama sealed victory with a time of 2:20:29 - becoming the fourth fastest Japanese woman in history, breaking Noguchi’s 2:21:18, which had been the fastest time clocked by a Japanese woman on home soil.

Hopes are high for Japanese athletes at Tokyo 2020, but what spectacles lie in store for the marathon in Sapporo? We wait with bated breath to see a 42.195km race full of passion and drama.