The Triumphant Tragedy of Marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya Part 3: The Wedding Engagement Break Up and the Suicide

Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal
Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal

Kokichi Tsuburaya was a national hero. He raced his heart out in front of an entire nation, which saw an exhausted Tsuburaya get out-sprinted at the  very end of a 42-kilometer marathon, and collectively groaned when their new hero dropped from silver to bronze.

But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.

Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.

One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.

Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.

Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.

Tsuburaya and Miyake celebrating
Tsuburaya (left) and gold medal weighlifter Yoshinobu Miyake (right) celebrating their Tokyo Olympic medals.

In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.

At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.

Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.