Running: It’s a Lifestyle


Since the Tokyo marathon started in 2007, the sight of runners pounding the pavements of the city has become an everyday scene. Nonfiction writer and keen marathon runner Tatsuno Tetsurō analyses the background to this passionate enthusiasm for running that has swept the country.

No one can say for sure how many runners there are in Japan, but estimates regularly put the number somewhere between 10 million and 25 million. The running boom that started a decade ago has proved to be more than a passing fad, and is now an established way of life for millions of people. Why has running become so deeply rooted in this country within the space of just a few years? The more I think about this question, the more I believe that something about running appeals to the Japanese character. At the same time, the growing popularity of running as a hobby and lifestyle choice has brought a new set of values to Japanese society. Taking a deeper look at the running boom phenomenon sheds interesting light on the cultural and social factors in the background.

Out of the Gym, Onto the Road

I started running 17 years ago, when I joined a gym in an attempt to lose some weight and get fit. I took to running on the treadmills—for ten minutes at a time at first, gradually building up my fitness levels until I was able to keep running for 30 minutes, and eventually for more than an hour. On the treadmill console is a display that shows you how long you’ve been running and how far you’ve covered. Looking at these numbers as I ran, I started to wonder idly about how long it would take me to run a full marathon at the same speed. I used to enjoy daydreaming about running a marathon one day.

Two years later, at a friend’s suggestion, I took part in the Naha Marathon, which is held in the biggest city in Okinawa. I started off well, but after about 32 kilometers my legs suddenly gave in and refused to move. My first attempt to run a full marathon ended in disappointment. As I sat on the stragglers’ bus with the other disqualified runners, the atmosphere around us was heavy with the dejection of unfulfilled ambitions. I realized that treadmill running alone was not enough to build up the leg muscles I needed if I was ever to complete a full marathon.

Stung by the pain of failure, I vowed to come back and conquer the course another day. I took to the road, and started to run a seven-kilometer loop from my office to the Rainbow Bridge. I ran this course two or three times every week. When the Naha marathon came around again the following year, I was ready. This time I managed to complete the course.

I am not a fast runner by any stretch of the imagination. Other runners would scoff at the times I achieve. For a full marathon, my times are closer to five hours than four—and even in a half-marathon, it is only with considerable effort than I can break the two-hour barrier.

The Impact of the Tokyo Marathon

Although my own times have hardly progressed at all since I first laced up a pair of running shoes, the running environment around me has changed beyond recognition over the past 17 years.

When I started out, it was rare to encounter other runners while you were out pounding the pavements. There were always a few runners in popular spots like Komazawa Park in Setagaya, or the circuit that runs around the moats of the Imperial Palace. But even in these places, runners were quite spread out. Although you might occasionally pass another runner or two, they were relatively few and far between. It was about 10 years ago that one first started to encounter other runners on the streets as well. This was just before the first Tokyo marathon in 2007.

I think there were three main reasons why the number of runners increased: (1) growing numbers of people who had experienced the pleasure of treadmills running in gyms started to move outside; (2) the health boom prompted more people to take up running as part of their weight-loss programs; and (3) media coverage showing famous actresses and models running helped to get rid of running’s negative image and make it “cool.”

And then came the Tokyo marathon. The popularity of this event has played a crucial part in transforming running from a fad to a well-established part of the mainstream. Since the Tokyo marathon started, it has become impossible to run on the streets without encountering fellow runners.

The five-kilometer circuit around the Imperial Palace has become something of a runners’ mecca, to the extent that people are practically running in lines at busy times. Wednesdays, which are “no overtime” days in many companies, are particularly crowded. In the old days, I used to shower in a local sentō public bath after my runs. But since the marathon started, facilities aimed at runners have sprung up all over the local area. These are more than just places to get changed and have a shower—many of them also rent shoes and towels and other equipment. There must be at least 40 of these facilities in the vicinity of the palace.

Recently, growing numbers of people have begun to “commute” by foot, running home from the office at the end of the day with a rucksack on their backs.

I think the first place in Japan where running became part of everyday life was Okinawa. I remember being taken aback by how many runners I saw when I spent a month or so in the islands in 1995, despite the heat. Many people picked up the running habit under the influence of the US bases that are such a presence in Okinawa. This concentration of runners means that Okinawa is also home to a disproportionate number of races too. The Naha marathon, first held in 1985, marked its 28th anniversary last year. The race is the “old firm” of Japanese marathons.

Back when the Tokyo marathon was held for the first time, the running boom was pretty much confined to Okinawa and Tokyo. I remember going for a run in the grounds around Osaka castle once when I was in that city for work. There were no distance markers or trails, and hardly any other runners. Other cities were the same. It was a rarity to encounter other runners. But recently, things have started to change. Osaka and Kobe held their first marathons in 2011, and Kyoto joined the club in 2012. Today, the running boom has become a nationwide phenomenon. Nowadays, you can meet other runners wherever you go in Japan.

Why Do We Run?

Personally, I’m convinced that running has a strong effect not just on the body but on the mind as well.

I often ask people why they run. Many people say they started to get fit or lose weight. But after a while, their motives started to change in subtle ways.

The act of running is not easy. It requires effort and endurance. It is remarkable how accumulated worries and stress seem to melt into insignificance compared to the physical effort of running. Running helps you to be confident and optimistic; it forces you to focus on moving forward. There is no doubt that running plays a valuable role for many people in getting rid of the pent-up stresses and frustrations that are an inherent part of life in a modern city.

I also think there is something about the endurance aspect of running that makes it the perfect match for the typical Japanese character.

Every sport in Japan absorbed considerable influence from the martial arts mindset of the pre-war years. Winning is important, but what was valued more than anything was the process of preparation. The emphasis was on battling through tough training and practice. By enduring this process, the athlete’s spirit was purified. This is true in all the major sports—whether it’s baseball, soccer, or rugby, the important question to a large extent still remains: How hard have you trained?

I think it’s undeniable that this kind of mentality is one aspect of the marathon boom. Going out for a run on a cold winter’s morning or the heat of summer is something you have to force yourself to do. You have to fight against the temptation to drop out and give up. I think the grit and determination to keep on running despite these temptations is part of the inheritance of the old-school martial arts spirit that emphasized self-discipline through hard work.

Many of my running buddies run every day. Some run twice a day—once in the morning and then again at night. Some of them are capable of drinking till late, missing the last train, and running more than 50 km home in the middle of the night. These people are all capable of running a full marathon in somewhere between two and a half to three and a half hours. One example of this kind of dedicated amateur runner is Kawauchi Yūki, a Saitama prefecture civil servant who won the Beppu Ōita Mainichi Marathon in Kyushu on February 3.

New Values

At the same time, running has brought a new system of values to Japan.

For many years, the major symbols of status in Japanese society were a person’s academic record and place of employment. Between them, the college you graduated from and the company you worked for more or less determined your place in the pecking order. But the collapse of the bubble economy led to the collapse of this system of values among the younger generation. This gave rise to the “freeter” (furītā) phenomenon—a new breed of young people happy to drift without commitment from one part-time job to another, pursuing their own interests without being tied down to permanent employment. And now this new breed of “slackers” has started to produce success stories of its own.

After I’d been in the running world for a while, I suddenly realized that not once had any of my fellow runners asked me about my job or what university I attended. When it comes to running, one’s academic and professional background are totally irrelevant.

Of course, people run in teams of various levels and sizes, and the circle of the people I know through running gets bigger all the time, thanks to Facebook and other social networking tools. A number of us often get together for drinks, but the only thing that brings us together is our shared interest in running. Once the party is over, we all go back to our own worlds.

In other sports, people often participate as part of a team representing the area where they live or the place where they work. Running is helping to give rise to a new kind of group identity, one that goes beyond a conventional sense of identification with a particular area or workplace.

Moving Support from the Crowd

There is one more thing I should mention, and that is the support you receive as a runner at race events.

Since 1998, I have applied to take part in the Naha marathon every year. There is a reason for that: the wonderful support from local people all along the route. From start to finish, there is a constant crowd of people. Because it’s so hot, the local people prepare ice for the runners. The consideration they show, crushing up small pieces of ice to help runners through the tough times and make sure they don’t get exhausted despite their strenuous efforts, is wonderful to see. They offer runners all kinds of things: salt, candies, energy gels, sodas, local Okinawa noodles—and even, occasionally, glasses of awamori, the local distilled spirit.

This contact with the local people who line the streets is one of the major pleasures of the marathon experience for amateur runners who are not competing to achieve the fastest time.

In recent years, increasing numbers of runners have taken to dressing up in special costumes to take part. This is done partly with the roadside supporters in mind. When people take part wearing fluffy outfits resembling famous cartoon characters or dress up like famous celebrities, it is fun for the people watching too.

On February 10 this year, I ran the 42.195 kilometer course in the Iwaki Sunshine Marathon. Iwaki is one of the communities that suffered from radiation fallout after the explosions at the nuclear power station in Fukushima in 2011. The club I belong to, Suna-dokei (The Hourglass), entered a team of three men and women runners wearing hula skirts inspired by the dancers at the famous “Spa Resort Hawaiians” water park that is one of the town’s major tourist draws. A male runner followed them with a placard that read, “Always remember: Iwaki.” The team ran in matching red T-shirts, on the back of which was written “Running for Tōhoku.”

Six of us ran in a group at a slow steady pace. People shouted their support from the roadside. Old ladies leaned out into the road, waving and encouraging us to keep going. We waved back just as energetically. I must have high-fived hundreds of people that day.

Among the shouts, I heard someone say: “Thank you for coming!”

Suddenly, I felt tears welling in my eyes. People were grateful to us for having come to run here despite the radiation worries. No one had ever said “thank you” like that before.

One woman in our team was handed a candy wrapped in paper. When she opened it, she found these words written inside: “Thank you for your courage. Take care not to get hurt.”

What words could ever be more encouraging than these?

(Originally written in Japanese on February 18, 2013. Title photograph: the Osaka marathon on November 25, 2012. Courtesy Keiwai/Pixta.)

sports Society Tatsuno Tetsuro running marathon