Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games: Spirit of Kokichi


Last March, before the postponement of the Olympics, the Japanese marathon team stood at a grave in a cemetery in Fukushima and vowed to win medals in the tournament. They then visited a memorial hall of (Ko-key-chi Suba-raa-yah) Kokichi Tsuburaya, the man buried in this tomb, the marathon runner who won the bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics and who, little time after, committed suicide, clutching his bronze medal. Toshihiko Seko, a 61-year-old Olympic athlete, was moved enough to say, “The Tsuburaya run formed the bedrock on which the marathon stands today.”

Few in the country had viewed a track athlete as a potential medalist until his achievement, and this is the story of his and a nation’s exhaustion. Japan is the most obsessed with running nation on the planet, with a particular focus on long-distance races which are incredibly popular. This year, more than half of Japan’s population, or nearly 65 million people, watched the two-day male truck stop between universities in Japan’s Kanto region – the famous Hakone Ekiden, cover more than 165 miles .

Over the past 30 years, since its broadcast on television, the relay race has steadily hooked 30% of the population. During the Edo period in Japan from 1603 to 1868, when the country cut itself off from contact with the rest of the world, couriers sent messages from Tokyo and Kyoto, switching to another courier for part of the journey . The ekiden races, which are made up of the Japanese characters for “station” and “transmit,” are a tribute to this past. Many ekiden teams were formed from the rubble of WWII as part of the nation rebuilding process to bring people together and build community spirit. The famous Lake Biwa and Fukuoka races, and the best ekiden tournaments started in this phase. Entire towns are coming out to attend these races. Running has a unique corporate and spiritual composite culture in Japan. Organizations regularly employ and promote teams of runners for the many Ekiden events. The corporate leagues reward nearly a million US dollars for a new national record, nearly 100,000 $ for 2 h 6 min and half of 2 h 07. For men and women. And a substantial sum for the coaches.

Then there are the revered running monks of Mount Hiei, who attempt to achieve enlightenment by completing a thousand marathons, with prayer breaks at shrines, in a thousand days, normally spread over seven years. In his book on running culture in Japan, “The way of running,” Adharanand Finn quotes a running monk: “The idea behind the constant movement of the Thousand Day Challenge is to exhaust the mind, the ego, the body, everything until there is nothing left. And when you are nothing, then something, pops, comes to fill the space. And this something, says the monk, is the meaning unity with the universe.

There is even a Buddhist deity for running: Idaten. In folklore, Idaten hunted demons to retrieve sacred relics. Finn recounts an encounter with a temple priest who talks about Idetan and claps his hands. “At that time,” he said, clapping his hands again to be clear, “he can circle the earth seven and a half times. Faster than Usain Bolt, ”he said.

Tsuburaya’s racing ambitions got serious in high school when he set a new section record in an ekiden. Even as a child, Tsuburaya loved to run, but by the age of five he suffered from severe pain and parents not only found that his left leg was shorter than the right, but that he suffered from tuberculosis arthritis which caused pain in the hips, knees and ankles. . It would cause pain every time he ran, but Tsuburaya was in love with running and refused to give in. An exasperated father finally gave permission after extracting a promise: “Once you’ve decided that, don’t give up halfway.” He joined the military – the “ground self-defense forces” – and grew in stature through competitive races.

Some question the intricacies of running culture in Japan. In his book, Finn sums up the perspective of Ethiopian runners, who occasionally train in Japan. “Running on hard surfaces, running too many miles and not enough speed are common themes, at least when I talk to runners in East Africa.” A running trainer, Kenji, attributes this to ekiden races. “ekiden is destroying our athletes,” he tells Finn. “He goes on to repeat his story that he was once the second fastest junior runner in the world, but was forced to overtrain. He says coaches don’t think about the athlete’s long-term prospects, especially at the high school and university levels. The pressure to win the ekidens is too great, he says, so they push the athletes too hard. He is particularly critical of Hakone. He says preparation for Hakone requires regular 30km runs from the student runners. “It’s too long, too hard,” he said.

Either way, over the years ekiden relay races have become more popular than individual marathons, which are considered a perfect symbolism for the Japanese concept of group harmony called “Wa”. But some critics questioned it, wondering if the Japanese are conformists, then how come all of their sports – judo, karate, sumo, etc. – be so individual.

The Japanese-American writer Roland Kelts provides a plausible answer. “Although there is a tendency in Japan to prioritize group harmony over individual desires, this does not mean that individuality, performance and individual responsibility are devalued. In fact, the concept of amae, or the need to[…]”“ Prominently with others, places a high value on individual behavior and performance. You have to be a better person as an individual if others are counting on you. Thus, ekiden is an ideal sport for the Japanese, because “if each individual is to perform at a high level, the goal is the success of the group”.

Some time before the 1964 Olympics, Tsuburaya fell in love with Eiko and wanted to marry her after the tournament. Japan collected medals in judo, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, swimming, gymnastics and the caravan rode until the last day. Misty haze swept over the stadium on a grueling wet day in Tokyo as it lined up with favorite Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who won the barefoot marathon in the 1960 Rome edition. . Bikila had been hospitalized for a week 40 days before the Tokyo event after emergency surgery for acute appendicitis, but won gold, wearing white flat-soled running shoes. A dizzying wave passed through the 70,000-strong stadium as they watched their Tsuburaya emerging from the tunnel. At his heels was an Englishman Heatley who, over the past two hours, had slowly closed the gap and on the last curve of the ashy track, Heatley passed Tsuburaya and collective angst descended on the stadium. No one was more downcast than Tsuburaya, who lost the money by four seconds and staggered into the arms of the officials. He then walked in a daze before sinking, head first to the ground.

He was a national hero but didn’t feel like one. He wanted to do better at the next Olympics in Mexico and started training hard. He wanted to marry Eiko and although his parents and running trainer were supportive, military superiors were not as they believed it might hinder his training. The protesting coach was demoted. In his 1964 book – The Greatest Year in Japanese History, Roy Tomizawa writes that although Eiko wished to wait, her mother ended the relationship. Heartbroken and without a trainer, Tsuburaya tried to persevere in his training but his body began to betray him. A slip disc and Achilles tendon injury that required surgery in 67 followed and he returned to his hometown of Sukagawa in Fukushima for a New Years break where he learned that Eiko had gone. married.

Tsuburaya returned to his military base and on January 8, 1968, slit his wrists and died holding his bronze medal. An extraordinary death note has been discovered. Where he politely and lovingly thanked his family for the Tororo soup, the dried persimmons, the rice cakes, the sushi and the wine, the herb rice, the nanban zuke pickles and the mongo cuttlefish he had eaten during the vacation, and ended with these lines: My dear father and my dear Mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. Please forgive him. He is sorry to have worried you all the time. My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side. 53 years after his death, he continues to be the inspiration for Japanese marathoners to realize his dream of winning gold.

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