The Hakone Ekiden Part 1: A Hugely Popular New Years Tradition in Japan since 1920

akihiro gunji of tokai university winner of 2019 hakone ekiden
Tokai University anchor Akihiro Gunji breaks the tape to give his school the victory in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden on Wednesday in Otemachi. | KYODO

It’s a New Year’s tradition in Japan – settling into lazy days of eating and laying about in front of the TV with family on January 2nd and 3rd, watching a running competition that spans over 200 kilometers – the Hakone Ekiden.

Since 1920, the annual Hakone Ekiden has transfixed the nation as teams of ten long-distance runners from universities in the Kanto region compete to complete ten legs of about 20 kilometers each. They run the roads of Japan from downtown Otemachi to Hakone on day one, and then back to Otemachi on day two.

Thousands line the streets to cheer runners from their alma mater while tens of millions more watch on TV from 8 in the morning to about 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America – without the glitzy half-time show.

And when 2020 rolls around, its feasible that some of the Japanese distance runners with medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics will be competing in the 100th anniversary of the Hakone Ekiden that January. In fact, that was the raison d’etre of the Hakone Ekiden – “to bring up runners to compete in the world.”

Those are the words of Shizo Kanakuri, who created the ekiden race. Kanakuri, along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, were Japan’s first Olympians, competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While Kanakuri was not able to finish the marathon in 1912, he represented Japan again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, placing 16th and finishing with a time of 2:48:45.

With expanded knowledge of what  international competition was like, Kanakuri grasped an opportunity to raise greater awareness of long-distance running, and thus develop Japan’s next generation of international competitors.

It started with a celebration – an event to highlight the 50th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the nation’s capitol. In 1917, Yomiuri Shimbun organized a massive road race that spanned over 500 kilometers and ran from Kyoto (the former capitol) to Tokyo. The idea of creating long-distance relay exchanges along the way came from the Edo-period practice of transmitting messages from Kyoto to Tokyo and back via humans who ran from station to station with their important missives.

zensaku mogi_first ekiden
Zensaku Mogi

So impressed was Kanakuri with the idea of a long-distant relay race, he had a vision of America – that the same could be done traversing the United States from sea to shining sea. While that vision was, as it turned out, an impossible dream at the time, it inspired Kanakuri and his partners from Tokyo Koshi and Waseda universities to create an organization that would invite university students to participate in a local ekiden. In the end, four major universities in Tokyo – Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi – elected to compete in the first Hakone Ekiden.

On February 15, 1920, when Zensaku Mogi of Tokyo Koshi University broke the tape on his arrival in front of the Hochi Shimbun office of Yomiuri Group, helping his team to a total 2-day time of 15 hours, five minutes and 16 seconds, he ignited a tradition of hope in the youth and future of Japan that continues to this day.

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