Characters Of Kona: The Japanese Effect

Out on the course, the Japanese fans’ presence is felt more than anyone else.

Photo: Oliver Baker

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In order to give readers a unique perspective of this year’s Hawaii Ironman, we’re going to look at some of the essential pieces that make this event special. Each day, will feature one of the Characters of Kona—be it a person, a group of people, or even a place—that makes the Ironman World Championship completely different from every other triathlon in the world. These are the parts of Hawaii Ironman that make it insanely difficult, incredibly inspiring and totally singular.

The Japanese athletes are not a big group, but they’re a tight group. The Germans are loud—taking pictures and waving their flags front and center. The Irish are quiet—trading backhanded verbal jabs with each other in hushed, rapid-fire accents. The Australians are everywhere, but each one maintains a three-foot wide personal bubble—they look focused, like they’re ready for a fight or an impromptu rugby game. It’s the lineup for the Parade of Nations, a yearly event on the Tuesday before The Big Day in Kona. Here each athlete brings a small flag to wave, or their national federation splurges on matching technical tees inscribed with words that mean a lot to them but very little to everyone else.

The group from Japan is a very small fraction of the 68 Japanese athletes set to compete in Saturday’s Ironman World Championship, but they stand out more than most at the parade. The majority of the Japanese contingent is wearing bouncy little bunny ears with Japanese flags held on by springs. Because of this—along with their happy-go-lucky countenance—athletes from other nations are flocking to take pictures with them, and they willingly oblige.

Just on the periphery of the group, Kana Namai stands next to her husband. Both of them wear short, black kimonos with a red character on the back—the symbol means “festival” in Japan, perfectly suited for the occasion. She holds a circular sign with “Japan” written on the front and her husband’s name, “Nobu,” on the other side. Though they’re all smiles while they pose for pictures with other nationalities (they are very popular!), she also sports a headband that simply says, “We will win.”

The Japanese contingent’s light attitude and outward appearance is deceptive—these are some very serious athletes. The de facto leader and rightful veteran of the group, Tsutomu Ishida earned his sixth trip to Kona by winning his age group in June at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Cairns, Australia. Last year, Ishida finished sixth in the year-end Ironman age group rankings and was the top-ranked athlete from Japan.

Tsutomu returns to Hawaii to try his hand against the best in the world—striking a fiercer edge against what announcer Mike Reilly calls an international family reunion. Tsutomu looks at the reunion as more of a chance to face this incredibly challenging course with its incredibly challenging conditions against the toughest crowd in the sport.

As a testament to Japan’s uniquely competitive nature, this year they have both the youngest athlete (19-year-old Hiraya Shun of Asahi City) and the oldest athlete (83-year-old Hiromu Inada of Yachiyo) in Kona. If Inada crosses the line before midnight, he will become the oldest person to ever finish the Ironman World Championship. The depth and span of Japan’s Ironman athletes is particularly impressive considering that the nation’s population is only roughly equal to the states in the U.S. that touch the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Out on the course, the Japanese fans’ presence is felt more than anyone else. Sure, in past years there have been Aussies out on the Queen K sculling beers—giving more as they get more gone—but the Japanese are the gold standard for cheering excellence. Traditionally, they’ll be prominently posted out on Palani Road or about a third of the way out on the bike course near Waikoloa Village. Their energy and excitement is unwavering—not just for their countrymen, but for everybody. They’re the fans out in large clumps on the course shouting “Gambatte!” which loosely translated means “work hard” or “try your best” but sounds way better when screamed at you in Japanese.

It’s hard to imagine that a country geographically smaller than California could have such an effect on a race that attracts the entire world, but that’s the beauty of Kona. At the Hawaii Ironman it’s not always the fastest people that have the biggest impact (Japan has no pros in Kona this year), but the group that embodies the best spirit of The Day and accurately reflects the energy of the island. Only in Kona could such a small group shape so much.

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