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Running in Tokyo: Japan Soldiers On

Tokyo runners find joy in a group workout despite the recent disasters in their country.

Namban Rengo

It’s 7:30 p.m. on April 20, 2011. Thirty runners gather in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, greeting each other in the glow of vending machines located 25 meters away. The runners haven’t been able to run on the nearby track since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit on March 11, triggering a nuclear meltdown that sent Japan into energy-saving mode. This means no lights at the track at night, so members of the Namban Rengo running club and others have adopted a dimly-lit loop in Yoyogi Park as their track, measuring out 1000 meters by placing a water bottle by a lamp post about three quarters around the asphalt circle.

Bob Poulson

Bob Poulson, one of the original founders of the group of foreigners and locals that started running together over 20 years ago, tells the crowd that tonight’s workout will be 2000 meters, then 1000 meters, two times through.

Members chit chat in English and Japanese, discussing future races (two women are racing an almost-iron distance race in southern Japan this weekend) and past achievements (one runner just ran a 2:40 marathon!). They introduce themselves to a newbie, recent Tufts University grad and British expat, Alex Uden. Then they set off for a warm-up loop.

The park is wooded and perfectly manicured. When the Namban Rengo runners pause before starting their first 2000, a group of 12 Japanese runners jog silently through the crowd in a line of pairs. In the distance, a soccer team stretches under a lamp.

Runners strip their warm up jackets and place them in the shadows under a tree—they’ll be safe there. Nobody has ever taken anything they’ve left, Bob says. Even though we’re in the middle of the world’s most populated metropolitan area, it’s quiet. Peaceful.

Namban Rengo Runners

Bob says go, and everyone takes off at his own pace. I run with Matthew Holmes, a British man in his early thirties who has been in Tokyo for one year. He tells me how he works in an HR department managing ESL teachers. Many of his teachers worked in the disaster area and are suffering from post-traumatic stress, having lost scores of children in the tsunami.

I speak with other runners throughout the cloudy, 55 degree evening, many of whom stumbled upon Namban Rengo’s website while searching for running groups in Tokyo. Japanese runners like the group because it’s social and laid back, unlike several Japanese running clubs that have rmore structure. They also like it because running with foreigners allows them to practice their English.

Among the runners is Mike Trees, a World Champion Master’s runner gearing up to go for the Master’s mile world record next year, when he’ll be 50. He’s brought t-shirts to sell for 1500 Yen ($18) a piece in support of his Japanese relief charity, Tri4Japan. He practically sells out of his stash after practice.

Runners who have completed their 2000 or 1000 yards wait under the soft glow of a street lamp at the finish line to cheer on friends, saying, “Ganbatte!” or “Keep going! Persevere!”

The running residents of Tokyo say back, “Ganbaru!” They will soldier on. They will persevere.