The Ancient Japanese Running Culture That Is Going Virtual

The 2020 Ekiden took place in January, but with social distancing during the pandemic, the race has now gone virtual
The 2020 Ekiden took place in January, but with social distancing during the pandemic, the race has now gone virtual | © Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo
Long distance relay running isn’t unique to Japan, but the practice has been a formal way of exercise and competition in the country for a number of years. The cultural phenomenon is known as Ekiden (駅伝), and a virtual version of the event is taking place soon in an attempt to maintain a competitive edge while social distancing. Here’s Culture Trip’s guide to a traditional way of exercising that is getting a modern makeover.

“I have competed in almost 50 Ekiden races since my running career began,” legendary Ekiden runner Yuki Kawauchi says. “The first time I was passed a tasuki sash [a traditional item of Japanese clothing] was when it hit home what the spirit of the race is all about. Your run is part of a collective effort, not just a solo pursuit, and remembering this as you run can inspire you to new levels.”

What is Ekiden?

The event is a team race that can take place over hundreds of miles and last for several days. It’s all the more surprising, then, given how long races can take to finish, that the biggest Ekiden in Japan typically attracts more than 1m spectators. The Hakone Ekiden, usually held annually on 2 and 3 January, is a televised event where rival teams of 10 runners from a number of Tokyo universities compete for ultimate victory.

“Of course, not every runner has to complete their individual legs in order for the team to secure an overall win,” Kawauchi explains, “but running just a second faster could change the course of your race and be the catalyst for your team’s success. That’s what attracts me and so many others to Ekiden.”

The 96th Hakone Ekiden took place earlier this year © Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

Competitions are held at all levels and for all ages. The team element is seen as a great way of bringing people together and as this Ekiden is nearly always a road race, it is easy to take part. One of the main reasons the sport is so popular in Japan is the historical significance of its first professional event. In 1917 a total distance of 508km (316mi) was run over three days between Kyoto and Tokyo.

This sponsored race was held to commemorate the relocation of the state capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, which was known as Edo at the time. It formalised some of the rules that originated in older traditions, whereby messages were passed on in a relay format.

In 2019, the winners of the Hakone Ekiden were Tokai University © Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

With its complex origins and often confusing rules, why is Ekiden proving to be popular outside of Japan and how can the race go virtual?

Running around the world

Research has shown a huge surge in people picking up their trainers and getting some relief from the stresses of 2020 by running. People are still keen to run, but taking part in competitive races with strangers isn’t an option for many at the moment. That’s where Japanese sports brand Asics picks up the baton.

“It’s a privilege to be able to bring the Asics World Ekiden 2020 to runners of all abilities around the world,” Yasuhito Hirota, Asics president and COO, says of his latest initiative. “In these times of isolation, the race is an opportunity for people to renew their connections with each other, enjoy the mental and physical benefits of team competition and re-energise their collective love of running in pursuit of a shared goal.”

Chikako Mori in the Women’s Industrial Ekiden qualifiers in Fukuoka in 2019. The live event in October 2020 was cancelled © Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

The race is being billed as the first global Ekiden, with the hope that individuals and teams will take up the challenge and share the experience together.

“I’m very excited for others around the world to experience the spirit of Ekiden. Though the race itself will be virtual, the principles of coming together as a team still ring true and that is what I’m sure will make the event so enjoyable for us all to take part in,” says Hirota.

The Virtual Ekiden Marathon, which is free to enter, is being held for the first time from 11 November to 22 November. For more information, visit the Asics website here