Next February’s Tokyo Marathon will send out a powerful message to the world from a country fast emerging from its trauma: Japan is back on its feet and back in business
After the devastating earthquake which struck the country on March 11 this year - or 3/11 as it has become known - Japan is determined is underline its ability to bounce back.
The biggest event Japan will have seen since the quake, the Tokyo Marathon 2012 is already being fashioned as a crucial tool for a country intent on showing the world not just its spirit, but also its ability to change.
Everyone agrees: the worldwide response to Japan’s suffering has made Japan a very different place, one in which the concept of charity has gained a new currency.
It’s a place I was delighted to discover during a four-day press trip at the start of October.
Now in its sixth year, the Tokyo Marathon is a race which already receives ten applicants for every single one of its 36,000 places. In their new post-quake world, the organisers are keen to change the make-up of those 36,000 runners.
More than ever, the organisers want to go global; just as importantly, they want to increase the amount the race raises for charity. Next year’s Tokyo Marathon will be the most significant running of the race yet - an international showcase for a new, more caring Japan.
Akira Shirai, the Marathon’s marketing division chief director, speaks with understandable emotion of the journey both country and marathon have gone on since 3/11.
Mr Shirai was on the 27th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building when the earthquake struck: “The building shook for 15 minutes. It was difficult to stand. I had to hold on, and I could see the other buildings moving. Fortunately Tokyo did not really have any damage to people or buildings, but it was scary.”
Since then, so much has changed: “Our Japanese culture didn’t have the idea of donation of charity. Donation and charity are not really Japanese things. The recognition of charity was much lower compared to western countries.
“The government is quite large so people thought things should be given by government. But after the earthquake, we got great support from other countries. It was the first time probably in Japanese history that we had support like that. When we started to see foreign countries giving support to Japan, the Japanese felt they needed to contribute to the area as well. The mentality of the Japanese regarding charity changed drastically. The Tokyo Marathon is somewhere we can start to see the change.”
And it’s in that spirit that the organisers are labelling Marathon day 2012 “the day we unite”. Hence the invitation to foreign journalists; hence the keenness to increase the number of foreign runners.
Non-Japanese runners numbered 2,878 in 2011; the target is more than 3,500 for 2012, and there are similar ambitions for the charity element. The 2011 Tokyo Marathon - just two weeks before the earthquake - had its first-ever charity runners, 707 of them. The hope is to increase that number to 3,000 in 2012. 50 per cent of the money they raise will go to the worst-hit earthquake areas.
Again, it is all about Japan showing its ability to overcome and move on.
Tad Hayano, secretary general of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation, underlines the point: “We want all the people to share the same joy and pride. We hope that the Tokyo Marathon will be as well known and respected as the New York, the London, the Boston, the Berlin and so on.
“With this marathon race, we are hoping we can show the world that we have got the spirit and that we have got the strength to come back to normal.”
It’s certainly remarkable the extent to which Japan has already shown its vigour and character since those dark days of March 2011.
8.6 million people visited Japan in 2010, and for the first couple of months of 2011, visitor numbers were up ten per cent, year on year.
But then 3/11 struck with all its devastation. Figures from 3/11 until the end of March were 73 per cent down. April figures were 62 per cent down, May was 50 per cent down, June and July were 36 per cent down and August was 32 per cent down. Overall, January to August was 30 per cent down on 2010.
Mizohata Horoshi, the head of tourism in Japan, is spearheading the Japanese fight back, touring to other countries with his message that Japan is safe.
But crucially he knows that just telling isn’t enough. He has also invited more than a thousand journalists to Japan to show them that Japan is safe, on the principle that seeing is believing. On a higher profile level, he has always invited celebrities including Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to travel to Japan.
The 1964 Olympics were a landmark in modern Japanese history; so was the 2002 Football World Cup. This is a country where sport and tourism walk hand in hand: Japan has already thrown its hat into the ring for the 2020 Olympics.
The Tokyo Marathon is very much part of the thinking, particularly as the 2012 Marathon will pretty much coincide with the first anniversary of the disaster.
“We want to show the world that Tokyo is now safe, and we want to express our thanks to the world for the support we have received,” Mr Horoshi said. “And to do that we would like to have 10,000 foreigners visiting Japan including the runners.”
Japan is a country which hits you right between the eyes with the most vibrant, the most intoxicating mix of sights and sounds and smells.
Tokyo is a place which grabs you and gets inside you, fast, fascinating and above all friendly - a city built on respect and on the warmest of welcomes.
As guests of the Tokyo Marathon organisation, we were treated with every courtesy by hosts ever eager to please and confident in the knowledge that they have got a rare treasure to reveal: a city which makes you walk taller, lifts the spirits and leaves you drunk on its atmosphere.
Everyone was intent on telling us that Tokyo was safe. I took them at their word, plunging down dark alleys and side streets camera in hand, exploring the bright glitzy neon streets and enjoying unmolested the beautiful tranquillity of an early-morning run.
A self-confessed marathon bore and a veteran of 24 marathons in ten different countries, I like to think I know a good marathon course when I see one: Tokyo’s is a cracker, kicking off outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building before heading off through the dazzling night club district.
Then it reaches the perimeter of the Imperial Palace Gardens before heading for Ginza, Japan’s number-one high-end shopping district. After that you plunge into the old town before wending your way to the finish at Tokyo Big Sight - a challenging course, but an excellent one, very much created with the sights in mind but also one geared towards the runners themselves, as its impressive 97 per cent finishing rate suggests.
It’s a course I would love to do - and the great news is that for foreign runners, places are still very much available as part of a package bookable in the UK through www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk/running/tokyo-marathon until the end of November. The marathon takes place on February 26, 2012.