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'Ganbare!' The Hakone Ekiden Shows the Team Spirit of Japan

Hakone Ekiden relay is a team sport unlike any other. To the rallying cry of "Ganbare!," runners present a virtual microcosm of the can-do team spirit of Japan.

"Ganbare! Ganbare!!"

A chorus of exhortative shouts swells as I spot the first runners rounding the bend. A crowd of thousands, gathered early one crisp fall morning at Showa Memorial Park in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, stirs to life, cheering on the fleet-footed athletes.

We are here to watch the qualifying meet for the Hakone Ekiden. The main race in January is a New Year's tradition in Japan. Sometimes called "the greatest race on earth," the Hakone Ekiden is a grueling two-day relay race. The runners, all male college students, start in downtown Tokyo on January 2. From there, the young men run sections of a 217-kilometer round-trip course (often up and down steep mountain roads) to Ashinoko Lake in Hakone, and then back, on January 3, to Tokyo.

What one person couldn't accomplish, several people working together can do. The athletes who participate in the Hakone Ekiden exemplify teamwork. So do the fans. The sportsmanship shown by racers and supporters alike makes the Hakone Ekiden a towering example of the team spirit of Japan.

Inversion of Zero-Sum Competition

I went to the Showa Memorial Park in October of 2023 to root for my home institution, Reitaku University. We have never made it to the big race in January, but over the past few years we have consistently placed well in the qualifying meets.

At the qualifying meet in October of 2022, we missed the cut by under four minutes in a nearly eleven-hour race. In 2018, we were less than two minutes shy of getting our ticket punched.

So, I arrived at the course this year hoping for victory.

But as the race unfolds and the young men zip by in huffing and puffing blurs, I begin to understand something. In the Ekiden, winning isn't everything. To my surprise, the cheers for the racers get louder as those bringing up the rear pass through.

"Ganbare! Ganbare!!" the crowd yells, urging the lagging runners on to the finish line.

In most races, the winner takes all. In the Hakone Ekiden, however, everyone who makes the attempt earns the spectators' respect. There is more than enough encouragement to go around.

The Reitaku Hakone Ekiden team in action. (Courtesy of ©Tatehiro Toyoshima)

All for One, One for All

Hakone Ekiden is a team sport unlike any other. The individual runs as much for the team's benefit as for his own. It is virtually a microcosm of the can-do team spirit of Japan.

As former Reitaku long-distance runner Ryo Miyata put it, the sash (tasuki) that each runner wears while running his leg of the race "is soaked in the sweat" of his teammates. For Miyata, that sash is "a testament to the efforts that they have already put in."

"A sash carries our wishes," Miyata continued. "I am wearing it now, and since I am the one carrying this sash here, I am now the one responsible for running for the team." 

Riku Ohashi, a Reitaku long-distance running team manager, said something similar when I interviewed him about the upcoming October qualifying meet.

"Everyone's hopes are condensed in the sash that the runners wear," Ohashi says. "Training is hard, but we stay focused on working as a team."

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The Discipline of the Long-Distance Runner

It should have dawned on me long before I attended the Hakone Ekiden qualifying meet in the fall of 2023 that long-distance running in Japan is more about the team than the individual. This, in turn, is a matter of character formation. Putting the team first is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work.

I reflect on what I saw at the October qualifying meet and realize that I have seen that kind of character in the classes I teach at Reitaku. The Reitaku runners learn discipline, camaraderie, and sacrifice. Over four years at university, freshman athletes mature into responsible leaders, and mentally tough young men.

I see it outside the classroom, too. Countless times I have passed by a peloton of Reitaku long-distance runners running around the leafy campus of our university. In the cold, in the rain, in the blistering sun, in the morning, at night ー the men are training. Whatever the weather or the hour, no matter what, they greet me, and everyone they pass, with a hearty "Konnichiwa!"

Whether the Ekiden runners win or lose on the day of competition, what matters most are the hundreds, thousands, of other days that lead up to it. Day in and day out, Hakone Ekiden runners hone their bodies and hearts so they can give their all to their team.

L to R: Reitaku runners Kouya Suzuki, David Shunq'eya Neiyiai and Hiroto Kudo (Courtesy of ©Tatehiro Toyoshima)

Leaving It All on the Racecourse

At the qualifying meet in October of 2023, the Reitaku team did not qualify for the Hakone Ekiden race in January.

The Reitaku highlight reel from the day is brilliant, however. For example, David Shunq'eya Neiyiai, a Reitaku student from Kenya, shone during the meet. For much of his leg, he was at the head of the pack, among the lead three or four runners.

But what mattered most was that the young men from Reitaku turned out and gave it their all, as a team.

Reitaku University long-distance running coach Tatehiro Toyoshima summed this up in an e-mail he sent to team supporters after the meet.

"When I got home," Coach Toyoshima wrote, "I watched the video of the qualifying meet. I saw again what I felt on-site: every runner gave everything he had."

Japan Is the Country of 'Ganbare!'

The dedication required to do this, to give one's best for one's team, is surely the real prize of the Hakone Ekiden.

And none of it would be possible without the fans who come to the events to cheer the runners on.

"Ganbare! Ganbare!!" the people cheer. "You can do it! You can do it!!" The cheers get louder and louder as the race goes on. The racers at the rear get the most spirited encouragement of all.

In Japan, everyone who tries is encouraged. The Hakone Ekiden is the greatest race on earth because Japan is the country of "Ganbare!" The team spirit the Reitaku long-distance runners embody is the spirit of Japan in motion.

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Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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