Do You Know What the Ultimate ‘Ekiden’ or Relay Race in Japan Is?

  • CULTURE
  • Have you ever run long distance for days from one city to another? Do you watch relays or cross country races often? There is a Japanese term that has gotten into the English vocabulary called “ekiden (駅伝),” which was initially used to refer to stagecoaches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, “ekiden” races and championships happen all around the world in secondary schools and colleges as major sports events where you have to run on roads. Let’s dive into the history behind ekiden and the details of the most rigorous one, Round-Kyushu Ekiden (九州一周駅伝)!

    History of Ekiden

    Long-distance running is nothing new as humans have been doing it since hunting times. However, the idea of a championship has certainly come from the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan.

    We all know that the old capital of Japan was Kyoto (京都) before it was moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration (明治維新) in the late 19th century. To commemorate the capital change, Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞), a Japanese newspaper, conducted a race in 1917 which covered a distance of 508 km between Kyoto and Tokyo along the Tokaido road (東海道), one of the five old trade routes during the Edo (江戸) era.

    Usually, participants are grouped into teams, and each one runs from one segment (or station) to the other passing the torch or a sash called “tasuki” to another runner who is going to run to the next and so on.

    Round-Kyushu Ekiden

    Kyushu island is located in Southwestern Japan containing eight prefectures, namely Fukuoka (福岡), Oita (大分), Nagasaki (長崎), Saga (佐賀) and Kumamoto (熊本) in the north, and Miyazaki (宮崎), Okinawa (沖縄), and Kagoshima (鹿児島) in the south.

    There are different types of ekiden races that take place in Japan at high school, university, inter-prefectural, national, and international levels with hundreds of active participants running for hours or even days. One of the famous ones being the Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝) which takes place during New Year’s week between Hakone and Tokyo, covering approximately 219 km.

    Beating the Hakone Ekiden is the most intense relay race continuing for 10 days, namely the Round-Kyushu Ekiden, which covers 1,064 km – the longest in the world. Starting from Nagasaki, the race heads over through nine cities in Kyushu before ending in Fukuoka. There are 72 segments overall and the participants are from different prefectures of Kyushu, including the nearby Yamaguchi (山口).

    How did it end?

    Did you know that the Kyushu Ekiden has been a symbol of Japan’s unity and strength after the Second World War? It was started in 1951 and the winners are presented with a trophy called the “Prince Takamatsu Cup (高松宮賜杯).” Several athletes, including the famous Kenyan marathon runner, Samuel Wanjiru, have run this race while people cheer them on similar to that of Tour de France.

    It used to be premiered on the television and there were many enthusiastic viewers cheering for their favorite teams. However, the race ended abruptly after 61 years of inspiring people from all around the world. It stood as a symbol of Nagasaki which was completely demolished during the Second World War as a result of the atomic bombing. The main reasons for the sponsors’ withdrawal are the expenses involved in organizing such a large event for 7 to 10 days and the traffic it costs on Kyushu roads.

    There are other extraordinary relay races constantly premiered on Japanese television so there is no need to miss the classic Round-Kyushu Ekiden. But let’s still all hope that this epic race would soon be resumed!