Japanese Marathoner Was a Hero and a Cautionary Tale

by Msnbctv news staff

SUKAGAWA, Japan — Greater than 70,000 followers within the Nationwide Olympic Stadium — and tens of millions extra watching on tv — roared as Kokichi Tsuburaya ran on to the monitor, one lap from securing a silver medal on the 1964 Tokyo Video games. The Japanese had not gained a medal in monitor and discipline, and now Tsuburaya was about to make historical past.

Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who captured the gold medal in Rome in 1960 whereas working barefoot, completed 4 minutes earlier, setting a world report. As Bikila did calisthenics within the infield, Tsuburaya headed to the end line wanting exhausted and pained.

The farm-boy-turned-soldier was working in simply his fourth marathon, and his gutsy effort would reaffirm the broadly held perception in Japan that perseverance and psychological toughness can overcome deficiencies in uncooked expertise.

A medal would additionally add an exclamation level to the Tokyo Video games, which had been being celebrated as proof of the nation’s emergence from the devastation of World Struggle II. Tsuburaya’s success in essentially the most grueling of races spoke to the nation’s collective sacrifice.

The celebration was untimely and the occasions that had been about to unfold would enter Japanese lore in ways in which would each encourage and hassle the nation. To at the present time, Tsuburaya’s journey to Olympic fame stays a mannequin for schoolchildren. But his failure to satisfy his — and the nation’s — excessive requirements are additionally a cautionary story.

The frenzy Tsuburaya created when he entered the stadium grew when Basil Heatley ran on to the monitor simply 40 yards behind. The Englishman rapidly closed that hole and surged previous Tsuburaya, ending 4 seconds forward of him. Tsuburaya noticed his silver medal flip to bronze.

The shocked silence turned to cheers as the group hailed Tsuburaya’s extraordinary achievement. After Bikila and Heatley left the rostrum, he stood alone showered in cheers. He held his medal aloft and bowed to the followers and towards the field the place the crown prince and princess sat.

Inside, Tsuburaya burned with disgrace. If Heatley had handed him earlier within the race, few would have seen. However to a soldier who felt as if he had been working on behalf of the nation, letting the silver medal slip away as the entire nation watched was humiliating.

“I dedicated an inexcusable blunder in entrance of the Japanese individuals,” he later advised his teammate Kenji Kimihara. “I’ve to make amends.” He vowed to win gold on the Mexico Metropolis Olympics in 1968.

Kimihara, who crossed the road in eighth place, was unable to talk to Tsuburaya within the hubbub after the race. However he noticed his pal’s glum expression.

“Getting caught and handed made him really feel like he let individuals down,” Kimihara, now 80, stated. “That’s why he had such a tragic face.”

Tsuburaya by no means made it to Mexico Metropolis. Desirous to reclaim his honor, he doubled down on his coaching. However his physique was unable to deal with the brutal workload then favored by distance runners. By 1967, he was battling a herniated disc, lumbago and accidents to his Achilles’ tendons, which required surgical procedure.

He was additionally working via heartbreak. Tsuburaya wished to marry his longtime girlfriend, Eiko, however as was the customized on the time, he wanted permission from his elders to wed. Hiro Hatano, Tsuburaya’s coach, and Tsuburaya’s commanding officer supported the union, however a senior officer stated Tsuburaya couldn’t marry till after the Mexico Metropolis Video games.

Hatano protested the choice and was eliminated as coach. In an period when girls had been anticipated to marry younger, Eiko’s household nervous that their daughter could be left ready for Tsuburaya. Her household referred to as off the engagement and Eiko married one other man.

When Tsuburaya returned to his hometown, Sukagawa, for the New 12 months’s holidays at first of 1968, his father advised him that his sweetheart had moved on. Tsuburaya responded matter-of-factly. However after the break, he returned to his dormitory and on the morning of Jan. 8, he used a razor blade to chop his carotid artery. He was discovered lifeless holding his bronze medal.

In his bloodstained suicide be aware, which his household made public, Tsuburaya thanked his mother and father and siblings for his or her help and wished his nieces and nephews effectively.

“My expensive father and my expensive mom, your Kokichi is simply too drained to run anymore,” Tsuburaya wrote. “Please forgive him. He’s sorry to have nervous you on a regular basis. My expensive father and mom, Kokichi would have favored to have lived by your facet.”

Tsuburaya additionally despatched a letter of apology to the chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee. “I’m sorry that I used to be unable to maintain my promise,” he wrote. “I pray in your success on the Mexico Video games.”

He was 27.

For the primary time, the Japanese individuals noticed Tsuburaya not simply as an virtually legendary Olympic hero, but in addition as a heartbroken younger man. The pressures that led to his demise — his complete dedication to working, his lack of ability to buck authority and the lack of his fiancée — had been very actual to extraordinary Japanese.

“Laborious work, perseverance, humility, accountability, friendship, constancy — Tsuburaya connects plenty of cultural dots,” stated Roy Tomizawa, creator of “1964: The Biggest 12 months within the Historical past of Japan.” “The simplicity and poetry of the suicide be aware that he left behind is sort of shifting despite the fact that it’s quite simple and understated. I can see why so many Japanese had been moved by his story.”

Outstanding novelists lauded the be aware, including a surreal twist to the tragedy. However to most Japanese, Tsuburaya’s loss of life was a reminder of the darkish facet of a hierarchical tradition that bestows huge powers on elders, bosses and coaches who drive underlings to do issues in opposition to their will, a dynamic referred to as “energy hara,” or harassment.

“I believe Tsuburaya was a sufferer of the Olympics fairly than a shifting story,” stated Minoru Matsunami, a sports activities historian at Tokai College. As in different Japanese sports activities, “athletes needed to hearken to their administrators.”

Japanese society has change into extra tolerant since Tsuburaya’s day, but “energy hara” scandals are nonetheless commonplace in company life, colleges and sports activities like gymnastics, judo and sumo. On this means, Tsuburaya’s plight stays acquainted to on a regular basis Japanese.

Tsuburaya is widely known for having the “guts” to endure ache in his coaching, however to Akio Hattori, who watched the marathon on the streets of Tokyo as a teen, there’s a advantageous line between an athlete who is set and one who’s being abused.

“I take into consideration the assorted downsides, comparable to ‘guts’ in Japanese sports activities and the tradition that limits particular person freedom and the tradition of disgrace at the moment,” Hattori stated.

Nonetheless, Tsuburaya stays an inspiration. In 2018, a play about him referred to as “Earlier than the Mild, Runners at Daybreak” was carried out in Tokyo. In Fukushima, schoolchildren study his life. On the Kokichi Tsuburaya Memorial Corridor in his hometown, they obtain a pamphlet referred to as “Delight of Sukagawa” that describes Tsuburaya’s humble roots and heroic journey.

There’s little dialogue of the abuse that led to his downfall. However Kikuzo Tsuburaya, who nonetheless lives on the town, didn’t draw back from the subject in an interview in 2019. He nonetheless resents how his youthful brother, Kokichi, was handled after his coach, Hatano, was dismissed and changed with an officer with little expertise with runners.

“I’m saying a foul factor, however the director of the Self-Protection Forces Bodily Training Faculty didn’t know something,” Tsuburaya, 89, stated. “It’s robust for the athletes to comply with an individual who doesn’t know something about marathons main a crew, giving orders, after which making them comply with it.”

The Tsuburaya museum contains his spikes, uniform and medals, in addition to a laminated image of his suicide be aware. His life story can be defined. He was born in 1940, the youngest of seven youngsters who labored from an early age on the household farm, hauling greens and fruit. As a toddler, he ran exterior along with his brothers. His father, a disciplinarian, thought of the exercise frivolous, so the brothers ran at night time whereas their father was within the tub.

Kokichi ran via ache. His left leg was shorter than his proper leg, and he developed tuberculosis arthritis, which impacts the hips, knees and ankles. He started competing in highschool after he noticed Kikuzo and his pal run on a distance relay crew. He rapidly found that he was good at working and ran the 5,000 meters at a nationwide meet. He didn’t win and shaved his head to publicly atone for his loss.

After highschool, he joined the Japan Floor Self-Protection Drive and the long-distance relay crew. He ran the longest leg of races with a slipped disk that he didn’t disclose. Due to his skill, he was despatched to the Floor Self-Protection Drive’s bodily coaching college, the place many future Olympians skilled. In 1962, he and different distance runners traveled to New Zealand to coach, his first journey abroad.

By 1964, he had change into one among Japan’s premier distance runners. At a meet that yr in Sapporo, Japan, he set a nationwide report within the 10,000 meters and completed second, behind Kimihara, within the marathon. After the meet, their coach purchased some beers and Tsuburaya, Kimihara and their teammates toasted their success. The longer term appeared vibrant. “It was the primary and final time we had a beer,” Kimihara recalled.

Whereas coaching for the Olympics, Kimihara obtained a better have a look at Tsuburaya, his coaching companions and his coach. The soft-spoken Kimihara stated he discovered it arduous to interrupt into the tight-knit group of regimented navy males. Kimihara heard that earlier than Tsuburaya entered the bathtub, he would fold his underwear and shirt, not simply toss them in a basket like others.

He admired how effectively Tsuburaya and his crew skilled collectively and their singular deal with the Olympics. There was, he stated, super strain on athletes to uphold Japan’s honor on the world stage, expectations acutely felt by males from the Self-Protection Drive. That seriousness of objective was much more evident after the Video games started and Tsuburaya, Kimihara and the third marathoner to qualify, Toru Terasawa, moved into the Olympic Village.

The temper was joyous, and with athletes from all over the world and venues close by, there was no scarcity of distractions. After just a few days, it turned not possible for them to coach, so that they decamped to Zushi, a seaside resort about an hour’s practice experience away. After their exercises, Kimihara and Terasawa would return to Tokyo to absorb extra of the Olympics, however Tsuburaya stayed behind.

On race day, Tsuburaya was calm. Kimihara, although, was nervous, as a result of he had a quicker qualifying time and expectations for him had been larger. By means of the primary 10 kilometers, Ron Clarke of Australia, Jim Hogan of Eire and Bikila fashioned a lead pack. By the 20-kilometer mark, Bikila jumped in entrance for good.

Tsuburaya, who was within the second pack, caught as much as Clarke and Hogan. With seven kilometers to go, Tsuburaya was in second place, with Heatley and his British teammate, Brian Kilby, trailing.

Hattori, who watched the marathon about 4 kilometers from the end, noticed Bikila race previous to nice applause. He didn’t know Tsuburaya or Heatley, nevertheless it was apparent to him that Tsuburaya was struggling.

“He had a pained expression as a result of he was working whereas shaking his physique back and forth,” Hattori stated. “I felt that he was actually doing his greatest.”

With two kilometers to go and the stadium coming into view, Heatley closed in on Tsuburaya. “I didn’t anticipate to catch him,” Heatley stated. However, he added, “he got here again quicker than I anticipated.”

Three years later, Kimihara sat with Tsuburaya within the locker room at a meet in Hiroshima, the place Tsuburaya ran 5-, 10- and 20-kilometer races, setting a nationwide report within the final occasion. “Subsequent yr in Mexico Metropolis, I’m going to win a medal for Japan,” Kimihara recalled him saying. Tsuburaya, although, by no means competed once more.

Kimihara discovered about Tsuburaya’s loss of life when a reporter referred to as his firm to hunt remark.

“I deeply remorse that I misplaced an irreplaceable and necessary pal,” Kimihara stated.

Nonetheless, when Kimihara traveled to Mexico Metropolis, he didn’t really feel that he was working in Tsuburaya’s honor and he didn’t anticipate to win a medal. That modified at first line. “I assumed Tsuburaya was the one who wished to be right here, so I’ll run for him,” Kimihara stated.

And run he did. Kimihara secured the silver medal that his pal virtually gained in Tokyo.

“There was no private pleasure,” Kimihara stated. “I used to be simply pleased I might proceed Japan’s marathon custom.”

Kimihara maintains one other, extra private custom. For greater than 30 years, he has traveled to Sukagawa for the Kokichi Tsuburaya Memorial Marathon to run and discuss his pal’s legacy.

He additionally visits his pal’s grave. After saying a prayer, Kimihara leaves a can of beer, recalling the day in 1964 once they all celebrated their luck.

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