Naoko Takahashi
Olympic marathon gold medalist
at Sydney in 2000
Japan has produced a number of world class male marathon runners. In 2004 Marathon running was the second most popular spectator sport after baseball with 37 percent followed by ekiden relay running (34 percent). The Tokyo marathon is held in February. It draws over 30,000 runners and is usually won by an African, with good showings by Japanese runners. Over 32,000 people ran the Tokyo marathon in 2008.

In Olympic track and field events, the marathon in particular has been the source of several medals for Japanese athletes. Takahashi Naoko won the women’s marathon at the Sydney Olympic Games and Noguchi Mizuki brought home the gold in that event at the Athens Games. In Athletics, Murofushi Koji took the gold medal for the men’s hammer throw at the Athens’ Olympics, and Asahara Nobuharu and his team won the bronze medal in the men's 400m relay at the Beijing Olympics. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Koichi Morishita won the silver medal in the men’s marathon at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Ari Ichihashi won a silver medal in the men's marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in Seville in 1999. Taniguchi won a gold medal in the men's marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in 1991.

Japanese women won gold or silver medals at the four Olympics and World Track and Field Championships between 2000 and 2004. Japanese men and women won the team gold medal in the 2003 world championships in St. Denis, France. In the men’s event, Japanese runners finished 5th, 10th, 12th and 21st. In the women’s event, Japanese runners finished 2nd 3rd and 4th.

Tsuyoshi Ogata took third in the men’s marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in Helsinki in 2005, Japanese record holder Toshinari Takaokoa came in 4th and Wataru Okutani was 14th, allowing to retain the team title which it also won before.

Samuel Wanjiru, the winner of the men’s Olympics marathon in Beijing in 2008, spent six years in Japan as a student at Sendai Ikui high school, where his talent was developed; he helped his school team; and won a major ekiden race with the Fukuoka-based Toyota track and field club. After winning the gold at Beijing in 2 hours and six minutes and 32 seconds medal he thanked his Japanese coaches. Some attribute his victory in hot, humid Beijing to his training on hot, humid Japan.

Fifty-two-year-old Japanese runner Ryoichi Sekiya won the 27th running of the 245.3-kilometer Spartathlon ultramarathon in 2009 in a time of 23 hours, 48 minutes and 24 seconds,Japan’s Sumie Inagaki was the top woman finisher and 14th overall with a time of 27:39.49.

The Lake Biwa Marathon attracts world class runners and has been won by likes of Paul Terhat of Kenya and Jose Rios of Spain.

Good Websites and Sources: Japan’s Marathon Queens (1998) ; Naoko Takahashi site ; Mizuki Noguchi: IAAF Profile ; Wikipedia article on Mizuki Noguchi Wikipedia ; Koji Murofushi, Official Site


Good Websites and Sources and Sources on the Olympics and Japan: Wikipedia article on Japan at the Olympics Wikipedia ; Medal Winners in ; Japanese Olympic Committee ; Essay on Japan’s Rebirth at the 1964 Olympics ; Database on Olympic Athletes ;

Japan and Marathon Running

Ken Marantz wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Japan's passion for the marathon is no secret and certainly justified. In national polls of favorite sports, it is regarded as a separate entity from athletics and, even so, often ranks among the highest. The nation's success in this trial of endurance and torment is part of the vivid history of the race, which has roots dating back 2,500 years that have deeper significance than who has ambled off with the gold medals. [Source: Ken Marantz, Daily Yomiuri, June 18, 2011]

Japan's links with Greece and its famous contributions to the sporting world became deepened in 2004, when Mizuki Noguchi won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics, overcoming sweltering heat and a star-studded field on the classic marathon course. "It's a moment I will treasure all my life," Noguchi said at the opening. "Not only winning the medal, but the entire setting. Keeping this in mind, I will train hard to make the London Olympics."

"When I was young, I thought the marathon was just a long race," said special guest Toshihiko Seko, the holder of the Japan record with 10 career marathon wins. "As I accumulated experience, I realized the marathon is a profound event. I am happy and privileged to have run this race."

Japanese Women’s Marathon Runners

Masako Chiba won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2003 World Track and Field Championship in St. Denis, France. Chiba took the bronze in the 10,000 meters at the world track and field championships in Athens in 1997.

Hiromi Suzuki won the gold medal in the women's marathon at the World Track and Field Championships in Athens in 1997 with a time of 2 hours, 29 minutes and 48 seconds. In second place was defending champion Manuela Machado of Portugal.

Yuko Arimori won the silver medal in the women's marathon in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and a bronze at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Junko Asari won a gold medal and Tomie Abe won a bronze medal in the women's marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in Stuttgart in 1993. Sachiko Yamshita won a silver medal in the women's marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in Tokyo in 1991

Yoko Shibui held the Japan record for the marathon for a while. She won the Osaka marathon in January 2001 with a time of 2:23:11 the Berlin marathon in September 2004 with a time of 2:19:14. Hiromi Ominanmi won the Rotterdam marathon.

Sumie Inagaki was first in the woman’s 246-kilometer ultramarathon from Athens to Sparta. She finished in 28 hours, 27 minutes and 20 seconds. Sekiya Ryichi finished second in the men race in 24:14:11. Fellow Japanese Masayuki was third in 25:19:12. Japan’s Sumie Inagaki was the top woman finisher and 14th overall with a time of 27:39.49 in 2009

In August 2009 at the World Track and Field Championship, Yoshimi Ozaki won silver medal in the women’s marathon. She was neck and neck with China’s Bai Xue in the final kilometers of the race with Bai prevailing at the end by 10 seconds. Kayako Fukushi finished 3rd in the 2011 Chicago Marathon.

The Nagoya marathon is a big event for women runners. Many Japanese runners made their mark there.

Naoko Takahashi

Naoko Takahashi is one of Japan's most well known athletes. A small slender woman who weighs only 47 kilograms and is 1.63 meters tall, she won an Olympic gold medal and broke the world's record in the woman's marathon.

Known in Japan as Q-chan, Takahashi is the darling of the Japanese media. Her cute face and cheerful smile were well suited for television and she was a fixture of variety shows, chat shows and comedy shows for months after she won her gold medal. Her coach, Yoshio Koide, also became a media star.

Takahashi is from Gifu Prefecture. She was sponsored by and officially an employee of Sekisui Chemical company. After the Olympics she turned pro and made million endorsing all kinds of different products.

Takahashi at Sydney in 2000

At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, at the age of 28, Takahashi became the first Japanese to win a women's track and field event and the first Japan to win a track and field event since 1936. She beat out Romanian Lidia Simon for the gold medal and set a new Olympic record in the event. After the race was over she smiled and said, "It was a fun 42 kilometers."

Takahashi was amazing relaxed on race day. She danced and listened to her favorite J-pop star, Hitomi, before the race, which made her feel "upbeat and energized." She barely looked tired when she crossed the finish line and said she wanted to resume her training regimen the day after the race.

In preparation for the hard and hilly course in Sydney, Takahashi trained for three months above 2,500 meters in Colorado. The altitude training paid off as she quickened the pace at key moments and was able to pull away from her main rival Simon, who is known for her strong finish, at the last big hill before the stadium. She also revealed that she boosted her stamina by drinking the stomach juices of three-inch-long killer hornets that travel 60 miles in a day at speed of up to 20mph.

Asics and its shoe designer Hitoshi Mimura designed the shoes that Naoko Takahashi wore when she won the gold medal at Sydney in 2000. The sole of right shoe was slightly thicker than the sole of her left shoe to compensate for the fact that her right leg is eight millimeters shorter than her right one.

Takahashi Breaks the World's Record

In September 2001, Takahashi broke the world's record in the woman's marathon in Berlin, She ran a time of 2:19.46 and beat the mark (2:20:43) set by Kenya's Tegla Loroupe in 1999. The weather and wind condition were ideal and Takahashi ran with a team of male pacemakers, who doubled as bodyguards, clearing a path for her threw the other runners.

Takahashi was the first woman to break two hours 20 minutes in the marathon. Unfortunately for her, her record was broken a week later by 59 seconds by Catherine Mdereba of Kenya who ran a time 2:18:47 at the Chicago Marathon. Takahashi had originally wanted to run in both the Berlin and Chicago marathons.

Takahashi After Sydney and Berlin

Following her triumph in Sydney and world record run in Berlin 2001. Takahashi split with her coach Yoshio Koide and formed the coachless “Team Q,” and embarked on a rigorous training program of ten 30- to 40-kilometers runs a month that didn’t produce results and smacked of overtraining. Some think she wasted her talent and could have won another gold, some world championship an and major city marathons if she was properly coached.

Japan has so many great women’s marathoners that Takahashi wasn’t even able to make the team for the 2004 Olympics. She collapsed in the last part of the Tokyo marathon, which was her qualifying race for the Olympics and finished second with a mediocre time. In 2005, she won the Tokyo marathon after not competing for two years. Under rainy conditions in 2006 she faltered at the end and came in third.

Yoko Shibui won the women’s race at the Berlin marathon, setting a Japan record of 2:19:41, in 2004. The time beat Takahashi’s former world record time and was the forth best time in the world at that time. Shibui did not make the Athens team either .

Takahashi officially retired at the age of 36 in October 2008. She did farewell run at the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon in March 2009.

Mizuki Noguchi

Mizuki Noguchi won the women’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She held up on a very hot day over a courses with many hills and finished with a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 20 seconds. The race was memorable in that the favorite and world record Paula Radcliff wilted under the conditions and gave up at around the 30 kilometer mark. Noguchi ran with a good luck charm given to her by her mother sewn into her shorts.

The race began at 6:00pam when the temperature was 95 F. It started at an elevation of 148 feet and peaked at 771 feet at the 19.8 mile mark on the course, ascending to get there at a rate of five stories a mile. The last six miles were downhill with the descent at a rate of eight stories per mile.

Noguchi led at the 15 kilometer mark, fell to fifth at the halfway point and then took the lead for good. She made her move on a the treacherous uphill section of the course and gained a lead of 30 seconds. “I was anxious about the move but I made up my mind,” she said. She surged ahead at the 25 kilometer mark and held off Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba coming into the home stretch at the Olympic stadium. Noguchi said later, “I was so excited when I came into the stadium, I heard everybody screaming.”

During the downhill section into the finish Noguchi was able to maintain her lead over Ndereba who pulled within 10 seconds at one point. Noguchi’s supporter alerted each other by cell phone of her progress. Her father, mother and elder brother were at the 36.5 kilometer mark. Her father yelled, “Go Mizuki!” three times. After that he surged to the subway to try and get to the stadium but didn’t make it in time for the finish. Japan’s Reiko Tosa was fifth and Naoko Sakamoto was seventh.

After Mizuki Noguchi crossed the finish line and won the women’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens she took off her right shoe and kissed its as an expression of gratitude to the shoemaker Asics and its shoe designer Hitoshi Mimura, who developed a special shoe for Noguchi and the course she ran that weighed only 118 grams and ad rice husks in the soles to provide better traction. Mimura flew to Athens to examine the course himself to best design the shoe.

Noguchi Before and After the 2004 Olympics

Noguchi won the Nagoya marathon in March 2002 with a time of 2:25:35; the Osaka marathon in January 2003 with a time of 2:21:18; and the Nagoya marathon in March 2003 with a time of 2:25:35

Nogochi won the silver in the marathon at the 2003 World Track and Field Championship in St. Denis, France with a time of 2:24:14 . She was beaten by Ndereba. Noguchi prepared for Athens with training sessions in the Alps and highlands in China.

Noguchi broke Japan’s women marathon record in Berlin with a time of 2:19:12 in September 2005. The time was the firth best of all time. She also broke the world record for both the 25 kilometer (1:22:12) and 30 kilometer distances, Leg injuries kept her from competing after that for two years.

Noguchi won the Tokyo marathon in November 2007 in a record time of 2:21:37. It had been two years since she had run a marathon. The victory qualified for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Noguchi and Japanese Women at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Noguchi did not compete in the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. She dropped out days before the event due to a hamstring injury she sustained while training in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Noguchi’s training regimen had been disturbed several times and she didn’t appear at a couple of events because she didn’t think she was prepared enough. She suffered from eczema in Kunming China where she was preparing for Beijing and moved to Nagano and then to St. Moritz to prepare in the high altitude there.

Noguchi was a favorite. Many picked her to win. She dropped out the last minute, also citing groin pain and fatigue, after two MRI tests. If she had won she would have been the first woman to win two consecutive Olympic marathon gold medals.

Noguchi trained hard, often running 1,300 kilometers a month, more than many men. She once sustained a bone fracture while training in Boulder, Colorado. Many attribute her hamstring injury to a training regime in which she not only runs long distances but also runs hard and fast. Later Noguchi said she made the right decision to skip the Olympics, saying she may have struggled even if she wasn’t injured as was the case with a number of top runners who dropped out.

Beijing 2008 women’s marathon team included Noguchi; Reiko Tosa, 3rd at the World Championship in 2007; and Yurika Nakamura, winner of the Nagoya marathon in 2008. The performance of Japanese women marathon runners in Beijing was disappointing. Noguchi did not compete because of a thigh injury. Tosa dropped out and Nakamura finished 13th.

Noguchi returned to distance running in late 2010 at the age of 32 after along absence but was not her former self.

Reiko Tosa

Reiko Tosa won a bronze in the women’s marathon in the World Track and Field Championship in Osaka in 2007, qualifying her for Beijing in 2008. She won a silver medal in the woman's marathon at the World Track and Field Championship in Edmonton in 2001. She was fifth in the Athens Olympics.

Tosa dropped out of the 2008 Beijing Olympic marathon at the 25-kilometer mark because of pain in her right leg. Tosa was pulled from the race by her husband who grabbed her by th arm because he couldn’t bear watching her grimace with pain. A month before she sustained a deep knee bruise after tripping over a pipe in Kunming, China where she was training.

Citizen Runner and Marathon Runners at World Track Championships in 2011

At the World Track Championships in Daegu, South Korea in August 2011, Japan won the team silver medal in the men’s marathon behind Kenya, whose finished runners finished first and second. The top Japanese finishers, Hiroyuki Horibata, finished seventh. Yuki Kawauchi, the full-time government-worker, who sometimes ran to work in a suit, placed 38th.

Ken Marantz wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Kawauchi, who opted for academically oriented Gakushuin University then spurned the traditional route of joining a corporate team after graduation, holds down a full-time job as a civil servant, working as an administrative clerk at Kasukabe High School, a night school run by the Saitama Prefecture government. He trains in his free time, without a coach, and pays his own way to meets.

Dubbed the "Citizen Runner," he drew national attention with a gritty performance at the Tokyo Marathon in February, when he placed third as the top Japanese to secure his ticket to Daegu. In the case of the world championships, I'm not thinking of the prize money," Kawauchi said at Japan's first official team event last week in Tokyo. "Most important is running as a representative of Japan. It's enough to be running for Japan, for Saitama and for the many [non-pro] runners."

Kawauchi not only bucked the corporate system, but has taken an unorthodox approach to preparing for the biggest meet of his life.

While other marathoners limit participation to selected meets, Kawauchi prefers to compete as often as he can, considering it part of his training regimen.Few runners entered in Daegu would even consider running a 50-kilometer ultra-marathon a little over two months before the meet, as Kawauchi did at Okinoshima in June. And even fewer would not be concerned after failing to finish because of heat stroke.To top it off, Kawauchi ran the Sapporo Half-Marathon just two weeks later, stumbling home in 63rd place. On July 31, he fared better in Kushiro, Hokkaido, winning a 30-kilometer race.

Kawauchi Misses the Cut for the 2012 Olympics

Yuki Kawauchi is a popular marathoner in Japan known as the "Citizen Runner" as he holds a full-time job and does not belong to a corporate team. In 2011 he placed third in the Tokyo Marathon to earn a spot on Japan's team to the world championships. "It's remarkable that he can produce such results while having a full-time job and training on his own. Sports officials look coldly at him, but I hope he ignores them and has a great next race and makes it to the London Olympics,” one runner told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Yuki Kawauchi missed his chance to compete in the 2012 Olympic marathon in London by finishing 14th in the 2012 Tokyo Marathon. The popular Kawauchi, had been hoping to improve on his showing in December's Fukuoka Marathon — the first qualifier where he was third and the top Japanese finisher. Instead, kawauchi might have killed his chances, by fading early and finishing in 2:12:51 — far off his goal of a sub-2:08 finish.

In December 2011, Kawauchi battled to 3rd in the Fukuoka Marathon. Soji Masuda wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “Josphat Ndambiri, 26, won the Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship in a time of 2 hours 7 minutes and 36 seconds on Dec. 4, just over a minute ahead of fellow Kenyan James Mwangi. Third-placed Yuki Kawauchi, 24, was the fastest Japanese runner in the Olympic qualifying event, with a time of 2:09:57. Masato Imai, 27, finished fourth. [Source: Soji Masuda, Asahi Shimbun, December 5, 2011]

Around the 25-kilometer mark, Ndambiri broke away from the field and led the race alone, leaving the three Japanese runners Kawauchi, Imai and Kazuhiro Maeda in a seesaw battle for Olympic qualifying points. Around the 38.5-km mark, Kawauchi threw away his plastic bottle and stepped up his pace. “(I did it) because my rivals stepped up their pace during the water stop at the World Championships, and that made me really struggle,” Kawauchi said.

Imai fought back and made his own spurt about 2.5 km from the finish. Kawauchi was back on his shoulder within 200 meters and prevailed in a thrilling sprint to the finish. “It was really, really tough. But those are my favorite moments. I run for those moments,” Kawauchi said. Kawauchi said he was surprised to beat his compatriots: “It was an unexpected ranking. I thought the best Japanese runner would clock in at 2 hours and 7 minutes.”

He said he is only at about 60 percent of his best and struggled in the early part of the race, falling behind the lead pack around the 15-km mark. At 30 km, he was again struggling, dropping more than 100 meters behind Imai and others. However, seeing his rivals pulling away, he said he saw in his mind the team silver medal he won at the world championships and dug in

Other Japanese Track and Field Athletes

In August 2009 at the World Track and Field Championship, Yukifumu Murakami was the surprise bronze medalist in the men’s javelin with a throw of 82.97 meters. He became the first Japanese just to make it to the final when he threw a personal best of 83.10 meters. In December he was voted Japanese track athlete of the year by the Japan Association of Athletics Federation.

Japan won a bronze medal in the men’s 4-x-100-meter relay at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It was Japan’s first track medal since 1928. The team included 36-year-old Nobuharu Asahara, a fixture of Japanese sprinting for some time, who had competed in four Olympics and six world championships.. The team was helped by disqualification of top ranked teams frm the United States and Britain because of poor baton passes.

Shingo Suetsugu won a bronze medal in the men's 200 meter sprint at the World Track and Field Championship in Saint-Denis France in 2003 and became the first Japanese to win a medal in a sprit event in world championships or Olympics. Suetsugu had a slow start but gained momentum and finished in 20.38 just 0.01 second ahead of the forth place finisher. Suetsugu had run 20.03 earlier in the year.

Dai Tamesue won bronze medals in 400 meter hurdles at the two world track and field championships: 1) in 2001 in Edmonton, where he set a new Japanese record and made up for a disappointment at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and 2) in 2005 Helsinki, where he competed in driving rain and a lane seven start.

Tamesue failed to make finals in three Olympics. In Sydney in 2000 he hit a hurdle and fell in a qualifying heat, In Athens in 2004 he ran n the semifinals but failed t qualify for the finals. In 2008 he finished firth in his first round heat and failed to advance further. Tamesue has said he will keep running and hopes to make it to the Olympics in London in 2012.

In November 2010, Chisato Fukushima became the first woman in 36 years to win both the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints at the Asian games. She was voted Japan’s track athlete of the year. Fukushima failed to make it to the finals at the 2011 world track championships in Daegu. South Korea and considered an accomplishment just to make it the semifinals. A first for an Asian woman. In the semifinals she finished eighth in her heat in a wind-slowed 11.59.

Runner Takayuki Matsumiya ran 2000 meter of the men’s 5000 meter race with only one shoe after his shoe came off when another runner steppe don it from behind during the race.

See Marathons, Above

U.S. decathlon gold medalist Bryan Clay in 2008 is the son of a Japanese-American mother and African-American father.

Image Sources: Japan Zone

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.