Ekiden Racing and the Marathon in Japan

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Abstract

Japan has a long and deeply embedded physical culture of long-distance running. During the late 1800s, imperial postal couriers ran messages along the Tokaido road, connecting Kyoto to Edo (known as Tokyo today), serving as an integral part of Japan’s communication and transportation system. From these foundations, a sporting tradition was established that has continued uninterrupted for over one hundred years. Ekiden racing is a team relay running race indigenous to Japan. It emphasizes four unique features: team dynamics within a solitary sport; Japan’s impressive support systems for the encouragement of long-distance running; the cultural feature of passing the tasuki (sash) while racing; and the performative expressions of effort, endurance and suffering that these events evoke for participants and spectators. Building on its social, educational, symbolic, historic, and performative strengths, the sport is exceedingly popular today in Japan. This paper explores the ways in which ekiden, a traditional and indigenous sport, has had an influence on the current marathon market in Japan and beyond. Finally, it discusses how Japan has encouraged and supported distance running as an activity that embodies Japanese cultural values while simultaneously drawing foreigners to Japan to participate in its distance running ecosystem. The tradition of ekiden racing is, in part, responsible for the development of Japan as a marathoning nation during the last two centuries.