The Land of the Rising Sun: Triathlon’s Unique Role in Japan

In a country and among people who have had more than their fair share of setbacks, triathlon plays a unique role. Mika Tokairin, the editor of Japanese triathlon magazine Triathlon Lumina, and Japanese endurance expert Brett Larner report.


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Read this article in Japanese here.

No matter what language you speak, triathlon is still swimming, biking, and running. Yet, while the basics remain the same across borders, the sport means different things to different people and different cultures. Although the U.S. may stake claim to inventing the modern version of triathlon, other countries have adapted it and formed their own triathlon identities and communities.

In Japan, the sport has a long history and its own unique style. The country has always been an early adopter of Western trends, across technology and culture—while also adding their own spin. This was just as true when it came to early triathlon.

The first Ironman was held on Oahu in 1978—and only three years later Japan hosted its first event, the Kaike Triathlon. There, fifty-three people, including two women, competed over a 2.5K swim, 63.2K bike, and 36.5K run. Kaike was positioned as a way to attract tourism to hot spring and beach spots, but with only a photocopy of an Ironman Hawaii pamphlet—which had to be translated into Japanese—and a borrowed video tape of the event to go by, organizers had their share of challenges when it came to figuring out this new sport.

The seeds of the Japanese triathlon scene were planted, though, and in the rich soil of a period of great economic strength, they quickly took root. In 1985, the first Ironman apan was held at Lake Biwa, near the heart of the country, about 200 miles from Tokyo. Dave Scott and Julie Moss were the winners, and the event gave Japan the distinction of becoming just the third Ironman host nation after the U.S. and New Zealand. It was also in 1985 that Japan’s most popular triathlon, the Miyakojima Strongman, and its first short-course race, the Amakusa Triathlon, began. Driven by serious media and advertising agency power, this new American-born sport flourished.

 

The pro men’s field starts the 2000 Ishigaki ITU Triathlon World Cup Triathlon. Photo: ITU Media

But as the Japanese economy began to falter in the mid-1990s, that first triathlon boom also began to sputter. Plans for resort developments at tourist destinations failed, and money from sponsors dried up. The media started to lose interest. But, going against the economic current, and helped by the addition of triathlon to the Olympic program, the Japan Triathlon Union (JTU) was established, and Japan hosted its first ITU World Cup in 1996.

Around 2010, Japan’s second triathlon wave came. Feeding off the unprecedented running boom sparked by the new Tokyo Marathon in 2007, triathlons attracted people who’d had their fill of marathons and were looking for something fresh and more fulfilling. Tomohiro Murayama, editor-in-chief of Triathlon Lumina, a magazine launched on the crest of the second wave, has been involved in triathlon media since 1998.

“The first triathlon boom was a product of media and advertising agencies fueled by a growing economy,” Murayama said. “The second boom happened at the grassroots level. People, tired of just running, came to triathlons looking for a new challenge. A lot of them were trend-conscious women. It’s safe to say that triathlons are now firmly established as part of an active lifestyle.”

Japan’s triathlete population is about 300,000. Around 60,000 actively compete in races, with the biggest demographic being those in their 40s. Although the percentage of women has grown quickly, it’s still small at just over 10% of total participation. The sense of community is also strong, as many people belong to triathlon teams and clubs.

There are about 160 races across the country, including aquathlons and duathlons, which is significant for a country roughly the same geographic size as California but with a population as big as the five most populous U.S. states—California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania—combined. There are world-standard events like the ITU WTS Yokohama Triathlon. But idiosyncratic races that evolved along their own lines better symbolize the Japanese triathlon scene: ones like the Kaike Triathlon, with a 3K swim, 140K bike, and 42.2K run; the Miyakojima Strongman with a 3K swim, 150K bike, and 42.2K run; and the Sado Astroman with a 4K swim, 190K bike, and 42.2K run. All three were launched to promote tourism to remote islands and areas, but over the last 30-plus years they’ve all grown into extremely popular events that are almost impossible to get into. Miyakojima Strongman is the most popular triathlon in Japan with 1,700 participants in just the almost-Ironman distance alone. Sado has over 2,400 participants between its long, middle, and relay events. And Kaike has about 1,200 total in its long-course event and relay. Last year Sado invited Mark Allen as a special guest, where he fell in love with the bike course and said, “It definitely has the best scenery in the world!”

While these local gems have flourished in the Japanese race scene, the Ironman brand has struggled to keep a foothold in the country’s market. A full-distance Ironman hasn’t been held since Ironman Hokkaido in 2015, so Japanese triathletes aiming for Kona slots have to go overseas to Taiwan, South Korea, or Australia.

To get a sense of the dedication, diversity, and importance of triathlon, as an identity for Japanese triathletes, we spoke to age-group athletes from Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Aichi about how the sport has impacted their lives.

Kenshiro Okada

Kenshiro Okada

Male, 29, Aichi Prefecture

In Japan’s age-grouper community there’s extra prestige reserved for those trying to achieve a Kona slot, and Japan’s major triathlon magazine, Triathlon Lumina, recently initiated a program to help those Kona seekers: The Kona Challenge. Their program selects 12 age groupers seriously targeting Kona, gives them training advice and performance analysis from experts in the field, and tracks their progress in a series of articles. Each person in the project trains individually, but gets motivation from being part of a group that shares the same pursuit.

Kenshiro Okada is one of them, and last September at Ironman Taiwan he secured his Kona slot. Influenced by his father, an avid triathlete, Okada did kids’ triathlons when younger, but it wasn’t until college that he started doing them on his own. After graduating, he got a job in a sportswear shop, but with having to work 11-hour days and on weekends he couldn’t do the kind of training he’d hoped.

Okada applied for the Triathlon Lumina project, wrote a self-introduction letter full of passion for Kona, and was chosen.

“I instinctively thought, ‘This is it!’” Okada said. “Before that, I’d been so busy with work that I couldn’t get really serious, but this was an opportunity to do some real training. It really flipped a switch inside me.” To focus on the Kona Challenge, Okada left his busy, stressful workplace and started working as an office clerk, still a full-time job but without the long overtime hours.

“I didn’t see any bright future at my former job, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to leave it,” he said. “I got my new job through a Kona Challenge member, and the company is very understanding about my triathlon activity.” With that new environment he was able to handle a 17- to 18-hour week training program, and within a year and a half he made the Kona grade.

Even in light of an unpredictable year that has turned Okada’s big season on its head, he said: “You just have to do what you can, there’s no other choice. You can find a way no matter what the circumstances. Now’s the time to put in the base work, and when the time comes that we can race again you can surprise everyone.”

Tomomi Shinohara with her teammates from the Hakujikai Triathlon Club. Photo: courtesy Tomomi Shinohara

Tomomi Shinohara

Female, 50, Tokyo

“Triathlon is my identity.” That’s one thing Kusunoki shares with Tomomi Shinohara. Shinohara began swimming eight years ago, at age 42, as rehabilitation for sciatic nerve problems brought on by her job as a flight attendant. Two months later she did her first aquathlon. Another six months after that, she did a sprint distance triathlon, surprising herself by winning her age group.

“After I quit my job,” Shinohara said, “I concentrated on raising my children. At that point people just called me my kids’ mom.” This is common for women in Japan. In their normal spheres of social interaction, mothers are almost never called by their own names and tend to be recognized only as a mother, not as their own person. “When I started doing triathlon, I became an individual named ‘Tomomi Shinohara.’ That made me really happy, even though it created its own pressure. But I was ecstatic to make the podium and even win prizes my first time trying a new sport. After that, I was all-in for triathlons.”

Shinohara was a sprinter on her university’s track and field team. She has been able to bring all of that latent physical ability to triathlon now, making the podium at numerous Japanese races and becoming one of the country’s top age groupers. She also competes annually in world-level events like the ITU Age Group World Championships and Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

“I train in the morning and during the day,” she said. “I get up at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays and make breakfast and lunch for my son. After that, I wake him up and then go for my morning swim. In between doing the things I need to do during the day I fit in my bike and run training. The challenge is to get it all done before my son gets home from school,” she laughed.

Shinohara co-founded the Tri Girls Japan online association for female Japanese triathletes. The group now has over 400 registered members. About 50 of them attended its first official physical meeting this January. “I started the group together with five friends,” she said. “We were inspired by the Women for Tri group and decided to make a Japanese version of it. I wanted to create a forum where women could discuss the issues in the sport that affect them, like menstruation, bike saddles, and raising children, without worrying about men overhearing. My main goal is to let other women know how fun triathlons are and to get even more of them doing the sport.”

Masaki Kusunoki in Kona.

Masaki Kusunoki

Male, 50, Tokyo

A customer service department manager at a Tokyo-based French food company, Masaki Kusunoki has been doing triathlons for 28 years. After university he got a used road bike and entered his first race. He’s been hooked ever since. His philosophy for tri is “not to compete with other people.” That said, he’s a top-level age grouper, who made it to Kona in 2018.

“I used to live in Osaka and competed in tris in the Kansai area. One I did every year was the Kaike Triathlon. I didn’t really get serious about doing Ironmans until I moved to Tokyo for work six years ago, but since then I’ve done them in Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cairns. I was pretty well guaranteed to make the top 50 in Kaike, but I blew it every time in Ironman. It wasn’t until Ironman Philippines in 2018 that I did something I was satisfied with. That was where I scored my Kona slot.”

Kusunoki’s family still lives 300 miles away in Osaka, while he’s assigned to the Tokyo office, so he spends most of his non-work time training. He swims at a neighborhood public pool, does most of his biking indoors with Zwift, and runs in a nearby park. Once a week he does a track workout with his running club.

To Kusunoki, triathlon is “like my identity. Even at work, my colleagues and clients remember me as Ironman Kusunoki.” With a laugh he added, “If that’s the way they think of me, then I can never quit doing them, because then I’d be somebody else!”

Having already scored his 2020 Kona slot, Kusunoki now faces the same race cancelations and uncertainty as people all around the world. “Triathletes are used to facing the unexpected,” he said. “Even in a situation like this, we have a unique mentality that lets us think positively…Focus on what you can do, and don’t worry about what you can’t. That’s something we triathletes can do.”

Tetsuro Sato

Male, 44, City of Hiroshima

No matter where you’re from, balancing work, family, and multisport can be a tightrope act. Tetsuro Sato works in the promotion of para sports and got started with triathlons after riding as the lead bike in a wheelchair marathon. Since then, in an effort to maintain that delicate life balance, Sato has gradually shifted to shorter distance triathlons through his 15 years in the sport.

“I want to do Miyakojima and other long triathlons,” he said, “but I can’t take extended periods off work, so right now it’s not really possible. I do local races and ones in the area where I can make it a day trip.” Sato’s training focuses on high intensity over a short time. When his work finishes at 5 p.m., he trains for an hour afterward. On weekends, he prioritizes spending time with his family, doing only two-hour long jogs or bike rides. His total training time per week is about eight to 10 hours.

“There’s time for work, time for my family, and the time that’s left I can spend enjoying triathlons,” he said. “Compared to other people, my training time and mileage are less, but given these limitations I can control the time I do have and focus on producing the maximum results.”

Sato belongs to three triathlon clubs, which might sound a bit odd, but is quite common in Japan. Clubs are not just training groups, but more about the opportunities to expand your triathlon social network. Sato takes full advantage of this. With Nangoku Athletes Hiroshima he takes part in bike training sessions led by former elite athletes several times a year. It’s a great chance to connect with other triathletes and get inspired by them. He’s not shy about approaching famous athletes at races and getting advice from them directly either. At one triathlon he struck up a conversation with former national team member Teppei Takeuchi. Takeuchi now coaches Sato’s swimming online. Through social media he has also developed good relationships with other top age groupers in different parts of the country, a virtual community of friendly competitors.

“For me,” he said, “triathlon helps set the pace of my life. When it goes well, so does my work, and vice versa. In terms of how to perform better, I don’t think there’s any difference between work and triathlon. In both, being surrounded by people doing their best at what they do is a positive influence, and that motivates me every day to pursue my own goals in work and training.”

Athletes on the bike at last year's Miyakojima Strongman.

A decade has passed since the start of the second triathlon boom, and the Japanese triathlon population seems to be hitting a plateau. Against the backdrop of a falling birth rate, a society-wide population decline, and a low-key economy, the biggest barrier to increasing triathlon participation is the initial cost, especially for the younger generations and women, who in Japan have lower incomes relative to older men. Another obstacle might be the lingering perception of triathlon as an inherently difficult sport. Despite the in-roads triathlon has made over the last 10 years to be seen as part of an active modern lifestyle, when many Japanese people hear the word “triathlon” they still think of the word “grueling,” even for short distances. There is still work to be done in spreading the charm of the sport as a fun, lifestyle event.

For Japanese triathletes, multisport can mean more than sports—it can mean a new identity, a new name, or a new voice. While swimming, biking, and running are all universal themes, the triathlon culture in Japan is vastly different than in other countries. For a place and a people who have struggled with challenges—personally, in the workplace, and even as a result of mother nature—triathlon has been a resilient tie that binds.

Like everywhere else, all the Japanese races mentioned here, the Tokyo Olympics, and many more events have been forced to postpone or cancel as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. One thing in common, though, between all the athletes is a spirit of positivity. Focus on what you can do, and don’t worry about what you can’t. In these challenging times, triathletes everywhere are learning that the lessons they’ve absorbed from their sport are now more valuable than ever.

Ai Ueda at the 2014 ITU WTS event. Photo: Delly Carr/Triathlon.org

The Elite Scene

Japan’s elite athletes are aiming to represent their country on home soil at the Tokyo Olympics, now postponed to next year. Here’s what you should know:

Ai Ueda Is the Queen of Tri in Japan

With multiple ITU podium finishes to her name, Ueda is the most recognizable face in Japanese triathlon. Ueda was on the Olympic team in Beijing, London, and Rio, and is looking for her fourth appearance in Tokyo. She’s a favorite of the media and has great name recognition with the general public—something uncommon with triathletes in the U.S. Thanks to both her accomplishments as an athlete and her bright, outgoing personality, she is supported by several big-name sponsors such as a hotel chain and a local shopping mall, as well as companies like New Balance and Bridgestone. The U.S.-based Yuko Takahashi is currently the highest-ranked Japanese woman internationally and is another favorite for the Tokyo team.

The Men Are Coming Up

Since Rio, there has been a generational change among the men, with young athletes like Takumi Hojo, Kenji Nener, and Jumpei Furuya competing for the Olympic slots. As none of them have yet hit true world-class level, the JTU has hinted that it may focus on trying to medal in the mixed relay.

Making It Work

Most of the athletes in serious contention for the Olympics belong to organized teams and get support from team sponsors—in contrast to the individualized U.S. sponsorship system. Depending on their level, they may also earn funding from the JTU. Team structures are diverse: Ueda’s team, Inage Inter, functions as a training group with members having individual sponsors. The team that Olympian Yuka Sato belongs to, Team Ken’s, has multiple team sponsors—the largest is a real estate agency. In some cases, a single company, such as foodmaker Nihon Shokken, owns an entire team, including the coaching staff.

Participants at the 2015 Kamaishi Hamayuri Triathlon. Photo: courtesy of the Kamaishi Hamayuri Triathlon

Kamaishi Hamayuri Triathlon

Triathlon races play an important role in the economy and society of many local communities. On the Pacific coast, about 300 miles north of Tokyo, the Kamaishi Hamayuri Triathlon is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Kamaishi was one of the areas hit hardest by the 2011 tsunami, and its triathlon site was completely engulfed and the surrounding area destroyed. Amid countless deaths and families who lost their homes, the local organizers put everything they had into keeping their race’s flame from going out.

Organizing committee leader Masahiro Mikami, who lost his house and his family’s third-generation business to the tsunami, spent the following years living in temporary shelters for evacuees. “The entire area was covered in debris, and the roads were gone,” he said. “But we held onto the hope that we could still pave the way for the race to be held again someday.”

In August 2012, the event returned as an open-water swim— the logic being that even if there were no roads, people could at least swim. With no public transportation access to the area, less than 100 people took part. In 2014, the event was held as a sprint distance triathlon, as road work gradually progressed. In 2015 it was lengthened to an Olympic distance with a shortened bike segment, and in 2016 it made a full comeback as the venue for the Iwate National Sports Festival triathlon. In recent years, Kamaishi has had around 200 participants, still only two thirds of peak pre-disaster years. “It’s an issue of capacity,” Mikami explained. “We’ll never have as many hotels and parking lots as we did before the tsunami. The town just doesn’t have the capacity to host as many people anymore.”

“Putting on the triathlon was better than not doing it,” he said. “If we did it, people would come, and that would give us something we could look forward to. The triathlon is Kamaishi’s identity. It’s a major festival for the people of the area, with 200 local residents volunteer on race day. There is no doubt that it is a bond that connects all of us in this region. The triathlon has the power to connect people, to improve their situation. It brings light to the people and to the area, and I think that is the most important role of our event.”