- Marathon Japan: Distance Racing and Civic Culture by Thomas R. H. Havens
In this book of innovative research on the history of racing and civic culture of distance running, Marathon Japan, Thomas Havens exhibits detailed information about the records of past and present Japanese distance runners, races, and organizations, as well as the political, societal, and economic environment for distance running throughout Japan’s history and personal accounts of civic runners in relation to recent popularity of running in Japan. The chapters proceed in a roughly chronological order with a few themes that are significant to Japanese marathon racing and culture, such as the emergence and development of Ekiden (long-distance relays) and local races and the commodification and commercialization of running.
The volume includes extensive records of the achievement of Japanese distance runners, which have been often disregarded both within long-distance running history and Japanese sport history, which tends to pay more attention to baseball and soccer. Throughout the volume, the author connects the achievements of Japanese professional marathoning with the rapid growth of amateur “civic running,” describing the transformation of Japanese running culture as “from watching to running” (3) and “running for everyone” (chapter 7). He discusses such adaptation of running into everyday sport from multiple angles providing several reasons, such as the popularity of Ekiden, an event watched by more than 30 percent of Japanese during the New Year via television broadcasting, as well as the commodification of sport, which has established a positive image of road racing through its approachability, especially in today’s urban communities. While traditional sports reports tend to focus on male athletes and runners of Olympics and major marathon races, Havens pays significant attention to achievements by a diverse group of runners, such as both male and female runners, professionally sponsored employee and university student runners, and old and young “civic/citizen runners,” as he calls the “brilliant palette of age group, diverse levels of bodily ability and social status, and every degree of personal ambition” (11).
On the one hand, the chapters are organized in a relatively encyclopedic fashion, without a definitive central argument for the purpose of demonstrating different views and analyses of Japanese distance running, such as the control of television broadcasting and mass media in relation to recent capitalist consumerism of sports apparel, industry, and even advertisement of universities through the Ekiden. On the other hand, the author attempts to examine the uniqueness of Japanese distance running to manifest some cultural specificity. He explains how Japanese distance running is well connected to Japanese tradition via the idea of sports of strengthening both body and spirit and the importance of effort, tenacity, and toughness (33–34). He examines the Japanese government’s history of encouragement and policies toward sports; however, such cultural traits of Japanese distance running could have been analyzed much more profoundly within Japanese history, especially those of Hakone Ekiden, the oldest and biggest Ekiden race in the nation. Ekiden, to which Havens dedicates a significant portion of the text, should be discussed in the context of [End Page 232] the historical significance of Tokaido, the major traffic artery during the Edo era, and its important checkpoint, Hakone, on the way to Tokyo. Further, while Havens described the heavy pressure Ekiden runners experience, such pressure could have been also analyzed in relation to the group-oriented culture of Japan. The concept of making an individual sport into a group competition, that is, relays, by visibly connecting each runner by the sash they transfer in lieu of a baton and thus carrying their collective energy and spirit to the finish line, reflects Japan’s group-oriented cultural traits as well as history of Hikyaku (courier) systems, which many Japanese people today believe is the origin of the concept of Ekiden.
Marathon Japan can be accessible both to recreational runners and sports historians who are especially interested in Japanese society and culture, due to the dearth of books on running history and culture, other than...