Japanese Woman Marathon Pioneer

June 7, 2021 — Came across an interesting article. A lady by the name of “Kiyoko Ohi (formerly ‘Obata’)” participated 2020 (+1) Tokyo Olympics torch relay. My memory came back vividly. It was in the fall of 1979, the first ever IAAF (predecessor of World Athletics) recognized women’s only marathon was contested in Tokyo. One of the favorites for the host country of Japan was young (22-year-old) Kiyoko Obata. She wrapped herself in the red T-shirts, red shorts, red shoes, red socks….and red head-band with “鬼”, a character meaning “goblin” (actually this is a Japanese goblin which is NOT evil but rather a spirit that fights evil away from us) — the first character of a traditional Japanese drum group, Ondekoza (鬼太鼓座). Unfortunately, from over-training prior to the race, she finished disappointing 17th in the time of 2:54:24. The first Japanese finisher, 36-year-old Minoru Muramoto, who finished 7th in the respectable time of 2:48:52, became the holder of the officially recognized Japanese record holder. Interestingly and ironically, this was the exact same time Kiyoko ran 9 months earlier.

Bill Rodgers after winning 1977 Kyoto Marathon

Rewind the time a little bit: 1975 Boston Marathon. It was, in a way, very historic for Japanese runners. While a local hero, Bill Rodgers, came from nowhere to win the 79th Boston Marathon in the American record of 2:09:55 (with Steve Hoag finishing second), that was also the first time Japanese “recreational” runners got together and ran the oversea marathon, led by Professor Tetsuro Yamanishi. There was also a group of young Japanese “performers” participated the footrace. As they finished the 26-mile journey, they hopped on a small “stand” at the finish and started performing the traditional Japanese drum. They were Ondekoza (*see their documentary HERE). They run daily to stay in shape. In fact, in the late 1980s-early 1990s, they attempted to run the circumference of the entire USA (!!). Later they became close friend with the winner, Bill Rodgers, and they kept in touch. In fact, Rodgers was invited to run a unique “a runner vs a relay team” marathon event in 1976. Rodgers won (!!) in the time of 2:08:23 but, unfortunately, the course was found to be 200m short and the event was not recognized as the official record. But Rodgers was seen wearing this same red head-band here an there, showing respect to his Japanese friends.

Kiyoko Obata running 1979 Beppu Marathon (left) and the start of 1979 Tokyo Women’s Marathon with Kiyoko in red (images provided by Toshifumi Kasao)

Kiyoko was a middle distance runner in high school in Nagano prefecture, competing in 400m and 800m. Some of you might remember; Nagano hosted the winter Olympic Games in 1998. Kiyoko enjoyed cross country skiing in the winter and her running times improved dramatically (aerobic base building!!). While still in high school, she was recruited by Ondekoza for her running ability. Kiyoko was very inspired by the beat of the Ondekoza drums (*you can watch one of their performances HERE), as well as their ambition of drumming and running in the world scene, that she accepted the offer. Her first oversea marathon was the 1976 Boston — famously known for near-100F temperature!! She ran 3:14:46 for 12th place. But she loved the atmosphere! She came back to Boston in 1977 and ran 3:12:38 for 27th place. This was the year a tiny Japanese lady living in California by the name of Michiko Gorman won the race in 2:48:33. Now Kiyoko was doubly inspired!! Now she trained even harder and came back to Boston in 1978 for a breakthrough 6th place in 2:52:34. In 1979, this time, she opted to run Beppu Marathon instead. No Japanese woman had run, or had been allowed to run, a full marathon in Japan back then. She was at first turned down. But her friends, fellow runners and coaches, convinced the race officials. In the end, she was allowed to “participate”. She was the sole female “participant” at February’s Beppu Marathon but ended up finishing very respectable 173rd place out of 252 “participants” (all men except for Kiyoko) with the time of 2:48:52 — the fastest time ever recorded by a Japanese woman (excluding, of course, Miki Gorman). But “women’s marathon” as an event didn’t even exist in Japan at the time so her time was not recognized. The first ever women’s only official marathon in Tokyo that fall would have been her opportunity for vindication. She upped her mileage (or kilometers) to nearly 30km (18 miles) a day to prepare for Tokyo Marathon. But she suffered a liver ailment from over-training and couldn’t perform up to her potential. That was pretty much her “career” — she got busy with drumming and more or less retired from competitive marathoning in 1980 at the age of 23.

Now 40+ years later, this torch relay was “her Olympic Games”. Her “running career” was not fulfilled. She had a dilemma whether or not call herself “the first Japanese marathon runner” for 4 decades. “I knew I was one of the pioneers but never quite clear even in my head,” she commented. I remember, watching that first ever Tokyo Women’s Marathon, all-red Kiyoko crossed the finish line with a mixed expression on her face — satisfaction of completing this historic marathon but not quite full-of-smile and not quite “completely spent” athlete’s satisfaction. She received a finisher’s towel and simply walked away. Perhaps that showed her “dilemma”. Her name should have been engraved in the history of Japanese women’s marathon; with likes of Naoko Takahashi, Mizuki Noguchi, Hiromi Suzuki, Reiko Tosa and Yoko Shibui. She probably feels like someone who was invited to a gala verbally but doesn’t actually have the invitation. She knows she’s fine being there but kind of worried what to say if someone asks her to show the invitation…. But when you actually lined up her accomplishments, they should speak for themselves. Is Kiyoko Obata a Japanese women’s marathoning pioneer? You’d better believe she is!! — Nobby Hashizume