Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Top Ten Japanese Women of 2012

by Brett Larner

2012 was not a great year for Japanese women's distance running.  Despite a few outstanding top-end performances, including all-time Japanese top ten marks by Hitomi Niiya (Team Univ. Ent.) and Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) and a slight improvement over recent years in marathon depth, overall the year showed a decline.  The death of Japanese women's half-marathoning has been the most puzzling trend; ten years ago over a half dozen Japanese women running times in the 67 to 69 minute range was a given, but this year only two broke 70 minutes, barely.  Depth was also down over 5000 m and 10000 m.  While the men seem to have turned the corner and have regained some upward momentum and positivity, Japanese women are still on the downhill.

It wasn't all bad, though.  London Olympics track runners Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal), Niiya and Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic) were a credit to the country, saying to their competitors, "This is the Olympics.  We're not here to jog," before setting the pace that dictated the way their races went.  Ritsumeikan University and its sister Ritsumeikan Uji H.S. both delivered thrilling performances to win the National University Women's Ekiden and National High School Girls' Ekiden titles, and particularly at the high school level the depth and quality were incredible: 8 out of the top 10 high school teams had better five-starter 3000 m average bests than 2012 NCAA DI cross-country champion University of Oregon.  High school teams.

With the balance of good and bad there's no telling where things are headed, but there is telling where they have been.  Using a scoring system that takes into account quality, range and performance relative to rivals, JRN ranked the top ten Japanese women of the year, with one honorable mention going to a worthy recipient.



1. Kayoko Fukushi (Team Wacoal) - 317.875 pts.

5000 m: 15:09.31 - 8th, London Olympics Heat 2, 8/7/12 - #1 Japanese, 2012
10000 m: 31:10.35 - 10th, London Olympics, 8/3/12 - #2 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Osaka International Women's Marathon, Osaka 1/29/12 - 2:37:35 - 9th
Golden Games in Nobeoka 5000 m, Nobeoka, 5/12/12 - 15:18.46 - 2nd
Bolder Boulder 10 km, Boulder, CO, 5/28/12 - 33:32 - 4th
National Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Osaka, 6/8/12 - 31:43.25 - 2nd
National Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Osaka, 6/10/12 - 15:25.74 - 2nd
National Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Fukuoka, 9/21/12 - 31:52.54 - 3rd
West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.2 km, Munakata, 10/28/12 - 32:11 - 1st - CR
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 35:04 - 1st - CR

Multiple national record holder Fukushi is the most dominant force in Japanese women's distance running, and 2012 saw her return to the top of the rankings by a slim margin over 5000 m national champion Hitomi Niiya (Team Univ. Ent.).  Starting off the year with a failed marathon in Osaka and running only passably through the spring, she made the London team without winning either the 5000 m or 10000 m national titles.  At the Olympics she brought her best, running the #2 Japanese women's 10000 m time of the year behind Niiya and the year-leading Japanese 5000 m time.  Post-Olympics she was at full strength, running a stage record at the West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden in her final tuneup for the New York City Marathon.  When that race was cancelled she switched plans to take a third stab at Osaka and used her NYC fitness to take Niiya on for the crown at the National Corporate Women's Ekiden.  In their last race of the year Fukushi beat Niiya by nearly 30 seconds over 10.9 km, setting a new stage record despite running straight into headwinds as strong as 55 kph and sealing the question of who was #1.  The Osaka International Women's Marathon has been unlucky for Fukushi so far, but hopefully three is a charm.

2. Hitomi Niiya (Team Universal Entertainment) - 289.875 pts.

5000 m: 15:10.20 - 10th, London Olympics Heat 1, 8/7/12 - #2 Japanese, 2012, #7 Japanese all-time
10000 m: 30:59.19 - 9th, London Olympics, 8/3/12 - #1 Japanese, 2012, #3 Japanese all-time

Other major performances:
National Interprefectural Women's Ekiden 9th Stage, 10.0 km, Kyoto, 1/15/12 - 32:06 - 1st
Fukuoka International Cross-Country Meet 6000 m, Fukuoka, 2/25/12 - 20:18 - 1st
Asian Cross-Country Championships 8000 m, Quingzhen, 3/24/12 - 27:03 - 4th
Hyogo Relay Carnival 10000 m, Kobe, 4/21/12 - 31:28.26 - 1st - PB
National Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Osaka, 6/10/12 - 15:17.92 - 1st
Akasaka 5-Chome Mini-Marathon, 5.1 km, Tokyo, 9/29/12 - 2nd
National Sports Festival 5000 m, Gifu, 10/5/12 - 15:17.79 - 1st - MR
East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 12.2 km, Saitama, 11/3/12 - 38:21 - 1st - CR
International Chiba Ekiden 6th Stage, 7.195 km, Chiba, 11/23/12 - 22:26 - 2nd
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 35:31 - 2nd

Niiya was the most consistently bright spot in Japan this year, on-target in every race she ran and setting a precedent as she formally joined the Universal Entertainment team in a sponsorship deal that lets her train independently of the rest of the team, only joining them for ekidens.  With an Olympic A-standard 10000 m best in April she was picked for both the 5000 m and 10000 m teams after beating Fukushi in the National Championships 5000 m, and at the Olympics she formed the face of Japanese distance running for the year.  Running a perfectly even-paced Olympic 10000 m that JRN readers picked as the performance of the year, she clocked a 3:06 opening split and frontran the entire race, outkicked in the end to finish 9th but becoming only the third Japanese women to ever break 31 minutes.  Four days later she ran the same way in her 5000 m heat and, while not making the final, she still marked the all-time 7th-best Japanese time.  Through the fall ekiden season she was still strong, setting a course record at the East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden despite running alone in front, but at the National race she could not match Fukushi and was consigned to the runner-up spot.  An iconoclast who won the first Tokyo Marathon at age 18, turned away from longer distances after a string of failures to focus successfully on track and cross-country where others would have quit, Niiya still looks to have room for improvement.  2013 may be the year where she finally topples Fukushi.

3. Mika Yoshikawa (Team Panasonic) - 182 pts.

5000 m: 15:16.77 - 13th, London Olympics Heat 1, 8/7/12 - #3 Japanese, 2012
10000 m: 31:28.71 - 1st, National Championships, 6/8/12 - #3 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
National Corporate 10 km Road Championships, Yamaguchi, 3/18/12 - 32:59 - 1st
Hyogo Relay Carnival 10000 m, Kobe, 4/21/12 - 31:58.73 - 2nd
Tokai University Time Trials 3000 m, Kanagawa, 4/29/12 - 9:03.72 - 1st
East Japan Corporate Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Saitama, 5/20/12 - 15:33.48 - 1st
National Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Osaka, 6/10/12 - 15:37.67 - 4th
London Olympics 10000 m, London, 8/3/12 - 31:47.67 - 16th
National Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Fukuoka, 9/21/12 - 32:09.10 - 5th
International Chiba Ekiden 2nd Stage, 5.0 km, Chiba, 11/23/12 - 15:22 - 2nd
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 36:29 - 5th

Five-time 1500 m national champion Yoshikawa stepped up for real in 2012, winning the national corporate 10 km road title and running the 3rd-best Japanese time of the year to win the 10000 m national title over a field including Fukushi, junior national record holder Megumi Kinukawa (Mizuno), collegiate national record holder Hikari Yoshimoto (Team Yamada Denki), defending national champion Kayo Sugihara (Team Denso) and more.  Looking slightly past her peak at the Olympics she still ran the year's 3rd-best 5000 m time after having already run sub-32 in the 10000 m.  In the fall she was running below her summer fitness level but still ranked among the best in the country.  Will 2013 see her focus on the track or continue to move toward longer distances?  With her junior teammate Asami Kato on a clear progression toward an early marathon debut the motive and opportunity for an ideal training partner are both there.

4. Ai Igarashi (Team Sysmex) - 173.25 pts.

5000 m: 15:31.72 - 2nd, Shizuoka International Meet, 5/3/12 - #6 Japanese, 2012
10000 m: 32:17.58 - 1st, Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet, 7/7/12 - #6 Japanese, 2012
half-marathon: 1:10:48 - 3rd, National Corporate Championships, 3/18/12 - #9 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Chiba International Cross-Country Meet 8000 m, Chiba, 2/12/12 - 27:31 - 6th
Kanaguri Memorial Meet 5000 m B-heat, Kumamoto, 4/7/12 - 15:50.47 - 1st
Golden Games in Nobeoka 5000 m, Nobeoka, 5/12/12 - 15:33.80 - 3rd
Hokuren Distance Challenge Kitami Meet 3000 m, Kitami, 7/5/12 - 9:07.21 - 1st - PB
Shibetsu Road Race 10 km, Shibetsu, 7/22/12 - 33:38 - 1st
West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 2nd Stage, 3.5 km, Munakata, 10/28/12 - 11:41 - 10th

Igarashi, a junior teammate of marathon national record holder Mizuki Noguchi, did not turn many heads in 2012 but she was there throughout the spring and summer running quality performances on the track, on the roads and in cross-country.  Her range was good enough to give her the #4 spot in the overall rankings above better-known runners with only one solid run.  After a win at the Shibetsu Road Race 10 km in late July she disappeared from the circuit until the West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden three months later where her sub-standard 10th-place run suggested injury problems.  This seemed to be confirmed when she was not on the Sysmex team entry roster for December's National Corporate Women's Ekiden.

5. Yukiko Akaba (Team Hokuren) - 146.25 pts.

half-marathon: 1:09:56 - 1st, Sanyo Ladies', 12/23/12 - #2 Japanese, 2012
marathon: 2:26:08 - 8th, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/11/12 - #8 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Sapporo International Half-Marathon, Sapporo, 7/1/12 - 1:12:07 - 5th
Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m, Abashiri, 7/7/12 - 33:08.59 - 20th
East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 12.2 km, Saitama, 11/3/12 - 40:26 - 2nd
Yokohama International Women's Marathon, Yokohama, 11/18/12 - 2:31:43 - 8th
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 37:55 - 19th

2012 was a bad year for Akaba, one of the country's best for the last four years.  Having originally planned to retire to have another child after running the London Olympics marathon, she finished only 8th at the final Olympic team selection race in Nagoya and stayed home.  Cycling through the lower end of the condition scale for the rest of the year, she had another disappointing 8th-place finish at November's Yokohama International Women's Marathon and ran flat-out badly at the National Corporate Women's Ekiden. Miraculously, she returned a week after the ekiden to defend her Sanyo Ladies' Half Marathon title in 1:09:56, one of only two Japanese women to break 70 minutes this year. She's not done yet.  Look for Akaba in Boston or London this April as she goes for a 2013 World Championships team place.

6. Risa Shigetomo (Team Tenmaya) - 130 pts.

marathon: 2:23:23 - 1st, Osaka International Women's Marathon, 1/29/12 - #1 Japanese, 2012, #9 Japanese all-time

Other major performances:
Chugoku Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Hiroshima, 5/19/12 - 33:25.48 - 1st - PB
Bupa London 10000 Road Race, London, 5/27/12 - 33:20 - 4th
London Olympics Marathon, London, 8/5/12 - 2:40:06 - 79th
West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 5th Stage, 10.8 km, Munakata, 10/28/12 - 36:50 - 7th
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 5th Stage, 10.0 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 33:23 - 1st

Shigetomo split the uprights in 2012, her best performances coming in her first and last races of the year. Unfortunately the Olympics came in between.  She got the year off to a great start with a win at the Osaka International Women's Marathon, fading off the 2:21 first half pace but still getting into the all-time Japanese top ten with a 2:23:23.  In a pattern characteristic of coach Yutaka Taketomi's athletes she then jumped straight back into training and got injured.  At the Olympics she was visibly unfit and could only manage a 2:40:06.  Coming back in the fall ekiden season she built up to a successful defense of her National Corporate Women's Ekiden 5th Stage win in December, an encouraging sign that she is back to where she was a year ago and ready for another shot at the marathon. Tenmaya's history is against her on that count but hopefully she beats the odds. Japanese women's marathoning needs her.

7. Yuriko Kobayashi (Team Toyota Jidoshokki) - 128.625 pts.

5000 m: 15:23.88 - 8th, Nittai University, 5/27/12 - #4 Japanese, 2012
10000 m: 31:51.91 - 2nd, National Corporate Championships, 9/21/12 - #4 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Shizuoka International Meet 5000 m, Fukuroi, 5/3/12 - 15:30.95 - 1st
Chugoku Corporate Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Hiroshima, 5/13/12 - 15:39.62 - 1st
National Track and Field Championships 5000 m, Osaka, 6/10/12 - 15:33.21 - 3rd
Hokuren Distance Challenge Abashiri Meet 10000 m, Abashiri, 7/7/12 - 32:21.03 - 2nd - debut
Central Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 4th Stage, 4.6 km, Gifu, 10/21/12 - 14:34 - 1st - CR
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 36:03 - 4th

Like Yoshikawa, 1500 m national record holder Kobayashi moved up in distance this year, debuting at 10000 m and making her way up to 4th-best for the year at both that distance and 5000 m.  Taking on the National Corporate Women's Ekiden's longest stage, 10.9 km, she was again 4th.  She may have missed making the London team but after a few lackluster seasons 2012 was an encouraging time for Kobayashi.  Look for her to move toward the all-time Japanese top 10 for 10000 m in 2013.

8. Tomomi Tanaka (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 110 pts.

half-marathon: 1:09:47 - 1st, National Corporate Championships, 3/18/12 - #1 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Hyogo Relay Carnival 10000 m, Kobe, 4/21/12 - 32:36.45 - 6th - PB
East Japan Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Saitama, 5/19/12 - 32:31.04 - 2nd
National Corporate Track and Field Championships 10000 m, Fukuoka, 9/21/12 - 32:27.70 - 6th
World Half Marathon Championships, Kavarna, 10/6/12 - 1:11:09 - 8th
East Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 5th Stage, 10.0 km, Saitama, 11/3/12 - 34:00 - 3rd
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 1st Stage, 7.0 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 22:21 - 3rd

Known mostly for being a Masako Chiba lookalike during her time at Tamagawa University, Tanaka came into her own in 2012 with a year-leading 1:09:47 to win the National Corporate Half-Marathon Championships.  Consistent throughout the year, she was the top Japanese woman at October's World Half Marathon Championships before running well in ekiden season.  At Nationals she got the defending champion Daiichi Seimei team off to a good start, running 3rd on the opening leg.  Plenty of headroom on this one.

9. Yoshimi Ozaki (Team Daiichi Seimei) - 97.2 pts.

marathon: 2:24:14 - 2nd, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/11/12 - #2 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Bupa London 10000 Road Race, London, 5/27/12 - 33:17 - 3rd
London Olympics Marathon, London, 8/5/12 - 2:27:43 - 19th

2009 World Championships marathon silver medalist Ozaki was not seen much this year. After bombing at the November, 2011 Yokohama International Women's Marathon Olympic selection race she angrily said that she would not try again, but in Nagoya in March she was back with the #2 Japanese time of the year, 2:24:14 for 2nd. A cursory course tour run at May's Bupa London 10000 led in to her Olympic buildup, which included runs as tough as 50 km at altitude. The Olympics didn't go well, and since then Ozaki has not been seen, absent from the Daiichi Seimei roster throughout ekiden season. She has to be feeling some serious disappointment, but with any luck she'll be back next year

10. Yuko Watanabe (Team Edion) - 79.2 pts.

half-marathon: 1:10:06 - 2nd, Sanyo Ladies', 12/23/12 - #3 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Nagoya Women's Marathon, Nagoya, 3/11/12 - 2:29:20 - 13th - PB
Bolder Boulder 10 km, Boulder, CO, 5/28/12 - 36:01 - 19th
Hiroshima Cross-Country Meet 8000 m, Hiroshima, 8/18/12 - 27:52 - 1st
Rock 'n' Roll Virginia Beach Half-Marathon, Virginia Beach, 9/2/12 - 1:19:06 - 6th
West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.2 km, Munakata, 10/28/12 - 33:42 - 6th
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.9 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 37:34 - 17th

Relative unknown Watanabe was nondescript for most of the year.  Coached by Second Wind AC head coach Manabu Kawagoe at Edion, she ran a marathon best of 2:29:20 in Nagoya, her most noteworthy achievement until the very last elite Japanese race of 2012, the Sanyo Ladies' Half Marathon.  There she was a close 2nd behind Akaba in 1:10:06, the 3rd-best time of the year.  With another marathon lined up next month in Osaka she could be ready to run at the 2:25-2:27 level.

Honorable Mention: Mizuki Noguchi (Team Sysmex)

marathon: 2:25:33 - 6th, Nagoya Women's Marathon, 3/11/12 - #7 Japanese, 2012

Other major performances:
Rock 'n' Roll Lisbon Half-Marathon, Lisbon, 9/30/12 - 1:12:20 - 4th
West Japan Corporate Women's Ekiden 3rd Stage, 10.2 km, Munakata, 10/28/12 - 33:03 - 2nd
National Corporate Women's Ekiden 5th Stage, 10.0 km, Sendai, 12/16/12 - 34:22 - 12th

National record holder and Athens Olympics gold medalist Noguchi's return to the marathon after a 4 1/2 year absence was the feel-good story of the year.  An endless series of injuries after her 2005 national record meant that her last marathon had been her 2:21:37 course record at the dearly departed Tokyo International Women's Marathon in November, 2007.  Most people would have lost the fire years ago, and after backing out of the December, 2011 National Corporate Women's Ekiden and January's Osaka International Women's Marathon Noguchi's was up against the wall for her goal of returning to the Olympics.  But against all expectations Noguchi ran Nagoya, and while she was never in contention for the Olympic team her 2:25:33 was good enough to be the 5th-best of her career and the 7th-best of the year for a Japanese woman.  Few performances this year said more about the human spirit.  Never give up.  Never surrender.

(c) 2012 Brett Larner
all rights reserved

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