Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Being fanatically anti-sports (mostly from the viewpoint of the spectator but to a great extent also from that of the participant –I find no meaning in the former and little besides health benefits in the latter) I had a hard time understanding the passion with which the Japanese, almost in their entirety, embrace the most boring of all sports: long distance races. Whether it is a relay race lasting two days and almost 140 miles such as the university Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝), a sine-qua-non of the Japanese New Year or for the classic marathon in any city of the world (like the one held in Tokyo yesterday), the event becomes first story in the media and the courses are lined with thousands of people encouraging not only the athlete of their choice (or in the case of international events, Japan) but all runners with no exception.
It’s not just about history, although Japan has been participating in and organizing such races since the first decades of the 20th century; part of this tradition is the story of the “father of the marathon in Japan”, Shizo Kanakuri (1891-1983) who got lost during the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and who, failing to report to the Swedish authorities that he had returned to Japan, was considered lost in Sweden for half a century –he came back to finish the race in 1966 ending up with the record for the slowest completion of a marathon: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.379 seconds. To find the reason that Japan participates heart and soul in marathon (or any other long distance) races one should look, once again, into the collective psyche of the inhabitants of this country.
The main characteristics of long distance running is patience and persistence, expressed in the Japanese language with the verb “ganbaru” (頑張る) –as a matter of fact this word was the subject of one of my first “Letters” almost three years ago- one of the most frequently used words in the Japanese vocabulary, especially the modern one. In the face of the athletes who choose to test themselves in these events, the Japanese recognize the monstrous effort of both the mind and the body, the battle almost to the end against the limitations set by nature and the judges’ clock and the loneliness accompanying this effort. This is the reason they cheer for all runners: they don’t care about their victory but for their fight because they project on them their own everyday effort for survival (in a land as unstable as this, survival remains a constant concern) and for a better life.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.