Tokyo-Hakone long-distance relay race

3 January 2010

University sports can be quite popular, especially among the alumni. Whether it’s football games between the US universities or the Oxbride Boat Race, university sports bring out someone’s loyalty towards his or her alma mater and perhaps reveals about his or her personality. In Japan too, there are many sports that university teams play, from baseball to rugby to rowing.

One of the most popular competitions involving Japanese universities takes place on 2 and 3 January. It is a long-distance relay race colloquially called the Hakone ekiden (箱根駅伝), which totals over 200 km, from Tokyo to Hakone and back to Tokyo again, in 10 different sections. It is broadcast live on television, and many people, even whose universities do not take part, also watch. It’s a bit like the Boat Race, where people who have never been to Oxford or Cambridge decide to support a team. Anyway, on the first day of the competition, 2 January, the race starts in Tokyo and ends in the spa town of Hakone. On 3 January, they return to Tokyo.

This seems a peculiarly Japanese obsession. Other sports such as baseball or rugby or rowing are played or held elsewhere, but the popularity of long-distance relay races looks confined to the Japanese archipelago. This may, by stretching the interpretations a bit, reflect what many Japanese people like to see, and how they want to see themselves. If you like, the Hakone ekiden is full of narratives that Japanese people like.

Why long-distance and not a shorter race? One thing that many Japanese people prize is endurance against hardship. For that reason, each section cannot be short, but sufficiently hard and exhausting. Some of the sections on the first day are uphill, so the runners face true tests of endurance, and this section is often seen as the highlight of the race.

Relay race has elements of team-work and individual rivalries between and among the runners. It is the team that wins, so while individuals are lauded for their run in the sections, it conforms to the Japanese notion of modesty and Japanese nature not to stand out. Some runners may be brilliant but individual excellency on its own cannot bring glory to the team.

The off-shoot of the importance of the team is that many Japanese people, like other peoples on the planet, absolutely love valiant losers. Stories of individuals making a huge effort against the odds, but not enough for the team to win, are a popular narrative for sport events, and often happens in this long-distance relay race. It shows sacrifies individuals make for the team, and however the team did, invidiuals will be remembered and praised for their efforts for the team.

The rivalries between the runners also interest many people. The point is that it is not always one-to-one. There are many runners in the same section, so it does become boiled down to A against B, which has the effect of elevating individual duels a little too much for Japanese taste. So the narrative is mostly framed in how the rivalries reflect in the teams’ standings, which privileges the team over the individuals.

Even in the same team, runners compete among themselves. Who makes the team? Which section will the atheletes run? Usually there are worthy contenders and it’s the most difficult task of the coach to decide who runs which section. This sets up a narrative of triumph over adversity. In an idealized version it will run like this: after sleepless nights, the coach decides to hand over the most popular section to athelete A over B, B accepts the coach’s decision and runs another section, and B ends up instrumental in winning the race for the team.

These narratives are popular in other cultures and among other peoples, but the emphasis on the team and competing in an event with many participating universities is probably quite unique.