A Sport of Linkage Born in Japan


   Many Chuo University students and alumni watching TV during the New Year holidays might have been shocked to see their team drop out in the first leg of the annual Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo ekiden relay race.  The word "ekiden", long popular among Japanese, is now a global language. Let’s see how it all started and evolved into what we see it today.


 Ekiden is a track and field event in which runners relay their team’s "tasuki" (sash) over a long distance, typically on roads. The distances covered vary from race to race. However, the standard distance defined by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is 42.195 km for both genders, the same as a full marathon. It is divided into six stages (5 km, 10 km, 5km, 5km and 7.195 km).


 Records say that the first competitive race was the "Tokaido 53-stage ekiden race" that took place in April 1917 by the suggestion of poet Zenmaro Toki who was then the city news editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun. It started at 2 p.m. on April 27 at Kyoto's Sanjo Ohashi Bridge and ended at Tokyo’s Ueno Shinobazu Pond at 11:34 a.m. two days later on April 29. The runners kept running in 23 stages over a combined distance of 508 km.


 The word "ekiden" was first applied to a long-distance road race by Chiyosaburo Takeda, dean of Jingu Kogakkan, the predecessor of Kogakkan University, a Shinto institution. Its origin dates back to the Nara period (AD 710-784) when the "ekisei (stage)" traffic system was set up along trunk roads linking the capital to the main cities across the country. Takeda got the idea from "ekiba" and "tenma" ("den" is pronounced "ten" here), meaning a stage horse and a relay horse, respectively. The horses were posted at each of the stages for bureaucrats who travelled along the highways under the ekisei system. The Tokyo-Hakone collegiate ekiden race debuted in 1920, three years after the Kyoto-Tokyo race. It has now settled as a celebrated New Year’s event.


 Chuo University has brilliant records in this historical competition. It first took part in the second meet in 1921 when it ended up in seventh place. It has since participated in 87 meets, 84 of them without interruption since the sixth meet, which is the highest of all schools. Chuo runners won 14 comprehensive championships (based on the total time for the outbound and return legs), also the highest on record. Chuo shares the top slot with Nihon University with nine “perfect” victories, which mean winning both outbound and return races in the same meet.


 The latest 89th championships in January ended in a bizarre outcome for Chuo whose runner for the fifth stage on the first day was too exhausted to continue the race. The team left no official records. For Chuo to participate in the next meet, it must win out in a tough preliminary round that precedes the final. Can we see the familiar vermilion tasuki relayed by Chuo runners in the 2014 championships? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.



Written by: Tomomi Kubota