Back in the early 2000s I lived for two years in Japan, working as an assistant English teacher in the small Hokkaido town of Mitsuishi-cho, as part of the government’s JET programme. I was not a runner back then, and my hobbies mostly consisted of drinking beer. I recently rediscovered my blog – Japan: The Alcohol Years – from the time. Here is a choice excerpt from 2002:
“So I agreed to run in the school mini-marathon.
Yes, believe it or not, Japanese PE teachers manage to be even more sadistic than their British counterparts. Every single student in my school (ages 11-15) is being forced on Thursday to run 4km in the name of building school spirit….Still, it’s amusing for me, because even though my fitness isn’t great, I’m still 10 years older than most of the students, so capable of outdistancing most of them. The fact that in the practice runs I’ve been finishing in the bottom third is, of course, deliberate.”
All of which is to say that, having completely missed out on the Japanese running scene when I lived there, I was very much looking forward to reading Adharanand Finn’s latest book. Following his success with Running with the Kenyans (see my previous review), Finn moved his whole family to Japan for six months so he could immerse himself in the local running culture. What follows is a classic fish-out-of water narrative, with Finn describing many of the strange things that happened to him while wrestling with a completely alien culture, although none of his stories rival the time that I ate raw fish semen.
Finn’s main goal was to understand why Japan has such deep strength in distance running. Case in point: in March this year, 265 Japanese university men ran a half marathon in under 66 minutes…in a single race. At the time of writing, only 6 British men have done that this year. Japan is generally considered to be in third place behind Kenya and Ethiopia in global distance running rankings.
It quickly becomes obvious that Japan’s obsession with ekiden – long distance relay races – is a significant factor here. The top ekiden races attract large television audiences, with the result that athletics is a much more popular spectator sport in Japan than anywhere else in the world. The Hakone ekiden, astonishingly, attracts viewing figures on a par with the Superbowl. This in turn provides athletes with huge incentives to perform and impress on the national stage. The running system is better sponsored and supported than in the West, with many companies even funding professional teams on their payroll. Runners might find themselves being employees of Toyota or Nissin Foods, making occasional token appearances at the office to boost company morale.
Finn explores other factors too, such as the famous Japanese work ethic, and the much-touted healthy Japanese diet. While it is true to say that the emphasis on fish, pickles and steamed vegetables in traditional Japanese cookery plays a role in a healthy lifestyle, I think this can be overstated in modern Japan. Most people don’t eat like this all the time. There is a lot of junk food in current Japanese cuisine, including tonkatsu (fried cutlets), creamy curry and greasy ramen noodles. All delicious of course, but self-evidently not conducive towards great performance. It is noticeable that in Finn’s account, even the elite runners he hangs out with go to the American chain restaurant Denny’s for breakfast.
The book takes an interesting turn when Finn realises that the question he should be asking is not “why are Japanese runners so good?”, but “why are Japanese runners not better?”. Despite the depth of running talent in the country, Japanese athletes are still not able to pose a serious challenge to the East Africans in international races. This becomes the crux of the story, and it turns into the opposite of Running with the Kenyans. Whereas in Africa Finn learned how to be a better runner, in Japan he learns how not to do things. He observes various things in Japanese running he takes issue with, such as poor running form, training constantly on roads, and – most of all – how excessive monotonous training can turn running into a chore instead of fun. Many Japanese runners, overwhelmed with pressure from their university ekiden coaches, burn themselves out before hitting their prime running years.
The national inward focus on ekiden, at the expense of standard global race distances, creates some perverse anomalies too. The Japanese record for the half marathon stands at 1hr 25secs, but this has actually been (unofficially) beaten during one of the stages of an ekiden. The problem is that, by focusing on national relay races, most Japanese runners do not take global 5ks, 10ks, half marathons and marathons seriously, despite clearly having the talent to beat the majority of nations on a good day.
For me, given that the book marries two of my favourite things – Japan and running – the issue became “why is the book not better?” Alas, despite the various interesting elements I’ve picked out above, the book is a disappointingly shallow read, especially compared to Running with the Kenyans. Part of the problem is that Finn clearly never got the levels of access he needed in order to fully explore his questions. Japanese culture has the twin concepts of tatemae (outward appearance) and honne (true feelings). It took me 18 months of living in Japan to make some true local friends, where we could talk freely and easily at the level of honne, instead of the surface-level pleasantries of tatemae. With only 6 months in the country, and with no understanding of the language, Finn never broke down the polite barriers of tatemae to understand what the athletes truly thought and felt.
Added to this is the gigantic Zou-san (Mr elephant) in the room. Japan Running News is the website for English-speakers wanting to learn about the Japanese running scene. In terms of access and understanding, the site – and ideally an interview with its owner Brett Larner – should have been essential for Finn’s account. However, it gets just a single reference in the book, and Brett Larner is not even mentioned by name. Perhaps there was some sort of disagreement or professional jealousy between the two – I remember seeing that Japan Running News blocked Finn on Twitter a couple of years ago – but whatever the reason, it’s a huge weakness for the book. For those who want deeper insights into Japanese running, I encourage people to seek out Larner’s interview on Marathon Talk.
Overall, despite my reservations, this is still an enjoyable book, and Adharanand Finn is as charismatic a narrator as ever. Although he is never able to fully deal with the questions he asks, the observations and details about ekiden racing are genuinely fascinating, and something that completely passed me by while I lived there. To be honest, according to my blog I was too busy doing this:
“Got extremely pissed for a second night in a row, as the teachers kindly organised a welcome party. Theme: what crazy ethnic alcohol will this stupid gaijin drink in the name of not offending us? Three hours of this and my conversation had deteriorated to the point of telling the men that, if they want to compliment a girl in English, they should compare her to a pavlova.
Well, in my defence, it is a nice-sounding word.
In a wonderful piece of Japanese scheduling, the next day was the mini marathon. Actually, thinking about it, they just have a cruel sense of humour. After the 3rd kilometre I had to veer off course to do a tactical chunder behind a tree.”
I have, of course, improved immensely as a runner since then. My tactical chunders now all take place at around the 10k mark.