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New Generation of Japanese Mass-Participation Marathons Waking Up to Reality

translated and edited by Brett Larner

Since the start of Japan's record-breaking running boom countless city and prefectural governments have started organizing new mass-participation marathons.  However, the widespread use of the standardized operation model employed by the Tokyo Marathon and Osaka Marathon has landed many of the new races deeply in red ink.  The issue of adapting race management to suit local conditions has begun to become of critical importance.

At the 2nd edition of the Osaka Marathon last Nov. 25, Yokohama Metropolitan Sports Promotion Division Director Yuji Nishiyama was in attendance to observe the event's operations.  "If they can do this here, why not in Yokohama?" he said.  And not only Yokohama.  Cities across the country are jockeying for position with countless new marathons of field sizes greater than 10,000 starting in 2013 and beyond.  In Kyushu, Saga Prefecture, one of the few in the country without a single full marathon, will host the new Saga Sakura Marathon in downtown Saga on April 7.  In February, 2014 Kita-Kyushu will launch a new marathon.  To commemorate the opening of the new Hokuriku shinkansen line in spring, 2015, Kanazawa will hold a new marathon in November that year.  Together with the prefectural government, the Okayama city government plans to stage a new marathon in the fall of 2015 that is projected to be the biggest in Shikoku.

According to the amateur runner market-targeted monthly magazine Runners, together with the increase in the number of races, the annual number of runners who completed Federation-certified domestic marathons has increased 240% over the last five years. Jiro Hashimoto, CEO of Runners' publisher R-bies which is also heavily involved in providing logistical support to domestic races nationwide, commented, "The running boom is only just getting started.  This is the time to be talking about how to get mass-participation races ready for the next watershed."

The majority of the new races are the direct result of the personal interest of governors and mayors seeking an economic influx and increase of name recognition for their region or city.  All of them aim to be able to handle the management of entry fees, public funds and sponsor money from local firms that is at the heart of any independent race management company, but that knowhow doesn't exist in government offices.  It's not hard to hear worried voices in those offices saying, "If we don't get enough sponsor money we'll never be able to afford the kind of security they have in Tokyo and Osaka," and, "We don't have enough people to run the kind of aid stations they have in Tokyo and Osaka."

As an example of the reality facing new races, the first edition of the new Kyoto Marathon last March ran up a debt of 231 million yen [~$2.6 million USD] which the Kyoto city government was forced to cover using public funds.  Contributing to the overrun, more than three times the regular number of on-duty police were required to ensure the smooth passage of ambulances and other emergency vehicles, with the cost of notifying the public of disruptions to regular traffic flow likewise exceeding expectations.  For this year's second edition operating costs have been reduced by more than 100 million yen [~$1.1 million USD] but even so there remains a shortfall of around 130 million yen [~$1.5 million USD].  As part of the effort to cover this amount, entry fees were raised from 10,000 yen to 12,000 yen [$110 USD to $130 USD].  A new entry method which allows people to gain guaranteed entry without having to go through the general lottery in return for a donation of at least 100,000 yen [~$1100 USD] toward the race's operating budget was introduced under the name "Charity Runner," but the name of the program was later changed "to avoid confusion with actual charities."

Another example is the Chiba Aqualine Marathon, run partly on the Tokyo Bay Aqualine highway bridge and which held its first running in October with a field of 14,000.  Despite bringing 151 million yen [~$1.7 million USD] into the local economy, on Jan. 24 Chiba governor Kensaku Morita, a primary backer of the Chiba Aqualine Marathon, announced that the 2013 edition of the race has been cancelled.  Governor Morita cited the difficulty in arranging for the closure of the highway, which cost the prefecture 86 million yen [~$1 million USD] in toll revenue, in explaining the cancellation, saying, "It took us three years to prepare for last year's race.  It isn't possible for us to be ready to stage the marathon again this year, but I really hope to hold it again next year."  Additional non-marathon-related tourism also lost out due to the bridge's six-hour closure, including local golf courses who complained that the race was being staged during one of their busiest times of the year.

At the other end of the spectrum, operating with zero public money is the Shonan International Marathon, which held its seventh running last November.  In charge of planning and operating the race as well as coordinating with the three cities and two towns along the course in Kanagawa Prefecture is the Runners' Wellness company headed by Yuji Sakamoto, the man who coaches and advises the celebrities who run the 24 Hour Ultramarathon segment of Nihon TV's annual 24 Hour Television variety show.  With a budget based primarily on the entry fees of the event's 23,500 runners, Shonan uses 3000 volunteers who receive special safety training to provide security and advertises road closure information in local newspapers and on local radio to keep costs low.  Sakamoto spoke confidently of his operation, saying, "By sticking to a carefully worked out business plan a private company can organize a race here in Japan the same way they do in Europe and the United States without losing any quality of service."

R-bies CEO Hashimoto also spoke of the value of having independent race organizers. With regard to the current situation among Japanese races he said, "When there is too much focus on providing safety not enough attention can be paid to highlighting the unique local character of the event. In the U.S. races everywhere have all the main organizers together in one place where they can easily exchange ideas and communicate. We need that kind of situation for our major races in Japan too."

This year the Tokyo Marathon has joined the London Marathon and four other massive marathons worldwide in the World Marathon Majors series. The Osaka Marathon has also entered into a relationship with the Chicago Marathon in a bid to develop its level of internationalization. There is no question that the bipolarization of the amateur marathon is only going to increase. With the first running it is about figuring out what you are doing. The second time and beyond it becomes about improving the appeal and interest of the event. It is necessary to build organizing committees that can look at and consider the medium and long term.


Jon in Tokyo said…
Very interesting. Thanks.
TokyoRacer said…
Why don't these races turn to the obvious solution: get sponsors! Give them lots of publicity opportunities before and during the race. You just have to go out and ask companies. These race directors are hopeless!

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