The parkrun family is made up of 22 countries around the world, and we’ll be taking a closer look at a number of them.
This week it’s Japan! Chiaki Okada tells us the story behind how parkrun launched in and grew in Japan.
Konnichi wa. My name is Chiaki Okada and I was born and raised in Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan. I moved to Australia in my mid-twenties and have lived here for the past 18 years.
My home town of Osaka is a vibrant, friendly city with about 2.7 million people. It is small compared to Tokyo however, which has around 14 million people in the city and 37 million in its metropolitan area — almost one third of the Japanese population. This makes it the most densely populated metropolitan area in the world. Japan is made up of 6,852 islands, with almost three quarters of the country comprising forests or mountains.
When I found out in late 2018 that parkrun would be launching in Japan the following year, I knew it had the potential to improve the health and happiness of millions of Japanese people. But not for the reasons many people might think.
Japan is a wealthy nation with the fourth largest GDP in the world and is often mentioned as the country with the highest life expectancy. Women live to 88 on average and men to 81. There are 60,000 Japanese citizens aged 100 or more, with the oldest being 115. Japan also boasts the lowest rates of heart disease and dementia in the developed world.
There are several theories for these positive health outcomes such as diet, 70 years of significant investment in national healthcare, successful public health campaigns, a hygiene-conscious culture and the fact that many people historically have stayed in the workforce after retirement age by choice rather than economic necessity.
Of course, there is a flipside to all of this. Japan is a country where many people suffer from social isolation and depression, which affects people of all ages.
Japanese families have historically had strong connections between two or three generations, for example older people would traditionally be supported by their children in Japanese society. However, this culture is changing.
The problem of social isolation is so big that there is an official word for it — hikikomori. This is a person who isolates themselves from society and family in a single room for more than six months. They do not leave the house to work or go to school. The Japanese government estimates that more than one million people are classified as hikikomori. Half of these are under the age of 18.
Furthermore, Japan has the sixth highest suicide rate in the developed world and it is the leading cause of death in men among the ages of 20-44 and for women aged 15 to 34.
Sadly, it’s not just younger people who are being affected. Japan has the highest proportion of elderly citizens on the planet, with those aged 65 and over making up a quarter of its total population, estimated to reach a third by 2050. Japan’s birth rate is so low that adult nappies are sold more than baby nappies. There are more pets than children.
Many older people live in apartment blocks, in isolation, with feelings of loneliness reaching epidemic levels. Fifteen percent of elderly men in Japan live alone and have fewer than one conversation every two weeks. There have been several stories in the media over the past year about older people in Japan who deliberately commit crimes so they will go to jail, because they find it easier to make friends in prison.
These are some of the reasons why I strongly believe that it is important for parkrun to find a way to play its part in empowering people in Japan to connect — and reconnect — with their families and communities in an enjoyable and supportive way. There is no doubt in my mind that parkrun can be a significant health and social intervention in Japan.
As parkrunners we all have our own stories about how and why we started parkrunning. For me, I had moved to Australia in my mid-twenties, completed a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, met my now husband and we had just had our second baby. All I wanted to do was escape from the house!
So I went online and found parkrun. At first I thought it must be some sort of cult because it looked too good to be true. I was trying to figure out what the catch was or if they were trying to sell me something.
I was really scared about going for the first time because I didn’t know anyone and I thought it would all be fast runners, so I was happy when it turned out to be really friendly. I was hooked straight away and I became a parkrunner. These days, parkrun is a social time for our family and friends instead of my way of escaping from the house.
This is why I was so excited when I saw in the parkrun newsletter in January 2019 that parkrun was looking for someone who could speak Japanese to join the parkrun team. The day I was offered the job was one of the happiest days of my life, because I knew it would give me the opportunity to make other people happy every day.
When I started working for parkrun it was only eight weeks until we were launching the first event in Japan so there was a lot of work to do!
parkrun Japan had been in the pipeline for more than two years at that stage. In October 2017 Sumitomo Life, a Life Insurance Company in Japan, enquired about the possibility of parkrun starting in Japan. Sumitomo was also preparing to launch the Vitality Health programme. As parkrun already had strong relationships with Vitality in South Africa and the UK, and with Japan being a country parkrun was already interested in, things progressed from there.
Sumitomo Life visited Dulwich parkrun in London to experience parkrun first hand, then representatives from parkrun UK and parkrun Australia met with Sumitomo representatives in Tokyo to visit potential event locations and meet a wide range of people who were interested in helping parkrun Japan become a reality.
On 6 April 2019 Japan became the 21st country to join the parkrun family, with the launch of Futakotamagawa parkrun in Tokyo.
The launch of parkrun in Japan is a moment I will always remember. The first week of April in Japanese culture is the time of new beginnings, with the cherry blossoms in bloom, school pupils starting their new year and people who have graduated starting university or new jobs. It was a fitting time for parkrun to begin.
I was very nervous about the pre-event briefing until it started. But all that went out the window when I stood up on a mound opposite the start line with parkrun’s Founder, Paul, and colleagues from parkrun in Australia and the UK. My passion, excitement and gratitude exploded from the bottom of my heart as I began to speak. I had prepared a note but I didn’t look at any of it. I was so happy to share parkrun with people in the country I am from and which I love. Japanese trains might be the most punctual in the world with an average delay of just 18 seconds, but on that day parkrun started 18 minutes late and nobody cared at all!
There were many laughs and smiles too. One parkrun tourist from Australia pointed out some of the Google translations for the volunteer roster had amused him, such as Timekeeper (Time Measurement Person in Charge), Tail Walker (Last Confirmation Officer) and First Timer’s Brief (The Person in Charge of Explanation to the First Participant). How wonderful it is to be part of a global movement with such a variety of language, culture and experiences, all united with a common goal of helping to make people healthier and happier.
The day after the launch event we had a formal dinner with Sumotomo. There were about 20 of us there, and one man came from the other end of the table to speak to me. He said he loved my pre-event briefing the previous day because he had recently moved to Tokyo from another town in Japan, and he was feeling lonely and stressed. He said my words made him feel warm, and in turn his words made me feel warm. That’s because parkrun in Japan had already made one person happier, and I knew he would be the first of millions.
Over the following two weeks I travelled to cities and country towns around Japan to meet with prospective event teams. It was a privilege to meet these people and hear their stories. It is heartwarming how people who are strangers let you into their lives when you start talking about parkrun — wherever you are in the world.
Two months after the launch of Futakotamagawa, Kashiwanoha parkrun started in the northern part of Tokyo, with Fukakitaryokuchi parkrun in my home city of Osaka kicking off the following week.
Wataraseyusuichi parkrun, 75 kilometres north of Tokyo, was the first of three new events to start in September 2019. It is a one lap course around a dam that was constructed in the shape of a heart.
Oyodokawa shiminryokuchi parkrun was the next to start in Miyazaki City on the island of Kyushu. Miyazaki is a popular resort destination for Japanese tourists and is famous for its excellent surfing conditions year-round.
This event was conceived by Sarah Barnes, who discovered parkrun in England with her mum in 2014. She continued parkrunning through university and when she moved to Japan to teach English she missed her parkrun fix, along with the chance to beat her parents to the parkrun 100 Club! Sarah took part in the inaugural Japanese parkrun and decided to bring it to her adopted home city.
Sarah says “Miyazaki is far away from the bright lights and busy streets of Tokyo but that’s not to say it isn’t amazing in its own right. Amazing food, gorgeous beaches and the kindest people you’ll ever meet, Miyazaki is without a doubt my favourite place in Japan.”
Horinouchi koen parkrun in Matsuyama City on the island of Shikoku scanned barcodes for the first time two weeks after their friends in Miyazaki. Matsuyama is Shikoku’s largest city, with a population of more than half a million. It is located on the northeastern portion of the Dōgo Plain and its name means ‘pine mountain’. The city is known for its hot springs (onsen), among the oldest in Japan, and is home to the Dōgo Onsen Honkan, a Meiji Period wooden public bathhouse dating from 1894.
Yodogawa kasenkoen Hirakata chiku parkrun, which is a bit of a mouthful(!), launched the following week in Osaka.
On 12 October Shimanami Earthland parkrun, on the northern tip of the island of Shikoku, held its first event. The course is three laps of a hill on both paved and trail paths. Co-Event Directors Angela and Tomofumi are a couple who were living in the UK. Angela is from England and they moved to Japan to look after Tomofumi’s parents. Tomofumi’s father is in his nineties and volunteers most weeks to hand out finish tokens.
Hirono kaigankoen parkrun in Shizuoka, on the south coast of Japan and known for its views of Mt Fuji, launched on 30 November 2019. The course is a five-lapper around a park in Hirono Kaigan Park on the shore of Suruga Bay.
It was only a matter of time until parkrun was introduced into Nagoya, which has more than 2.3 million people. Odakaryokuchi parkrun joined the parkrun family on 7 December.
Nagoya has the oldest TV tower in Japan which was completed in 1954 and is known as the ‘Thunder Tower’ due to its nighttime illumination. The tower is 180 metres high with two observation decks and has a restaurant, gallery and even a bowling alley at the top! However, it is perhaps most famous for Godzilla pulling the tower down in the Mothra vs Godzilla movie in 1964. It got pulled down again in the remake 28 years later too!
Sanukikodomonokuni parkrun in Takamatsu City also started on 7 December and the course is located on the opposite side of the fence of the city’s domestic airport. It literally runs parallel to the runway. Takamatsu has a humid subtropical climate with hot summers and cool winters.
Both of the original Event Directors at Sanukikodomonokuni parkrun have contrasting but fascinating stories of how they came to be involved.
Angela Fukutome is married to a Japanese man and they have three children. When their family moved to Japan, Angela didn’t know anybody locally and was a stay-at-home-mum. She started teaching English to a lively group of retirees in her town, and now teaches in schools and colleges, occasionally holding seminars and workshops to introduce British culture. She is now very active in her community!
Angela’s co-Event Director was Toru Taguchi, an employee of Sumitomo, which sponsors parkrun in Japan. However Toru didn’t know that his company was a sponsor until we told him — he’d actually found out about it through social media!
Toru was inspired by the community-lead concept of parkrun. He was working in Takamatsu, away from home in this town, and felt isolated and disconnected. Toru teamed up with Angela and they spent six months negotiating with the local council to obtain the necessary permissions, and were delighted when council representatives participated in the inaugural event.
Toru has since moved to a different city, again away from his family, and is currently looking for a location to establish a parkrun in his new ‘home’ town.
Nagaragawa koen parkrun, in the industrial city of Gifu on the edge of the Nōbi Plain, launched on 14 December 2019. Gifu has played an important role in Japan’s history because of its location in the middle of the country.
Meijo koen parkrun in Nagoya City was the first parkrun in Japan to start in 2020.
Yuko Seki, a woman in her forties, was instrumental in the development of this event. Yuko was a beginner runner who had begun enjoying local fun runs but struggled to find childcare for her six-year-old son. She also had to pay to enter these events.
One day, Yuko went online and searched specifically for ‘free, run, family, kids’ and unsurprisingly parkrun came up. She emailed parkrun Japan and asked for help in bringing parkrun to her favourite park.
Around the same time, Sumitomo and a running coach were trying to bring a parkrun to the same city but in a different park. Yuko was asked to join this team, but she was insistent that parkrun take place in her local park. After discussions with park management she received permission almost immediately and we now have two parkruns in Nagoya city.
Yuko encourages mums and families to participate as she knows it can be difficult for women to participate in events with children.
Three new parkruns have spawned from the two events in Nagoya City. One is confirmed to launch when parkrun starts again and two are being prepared.
Hikarigaoka koen parkrun in Nerima-ku, Tokyo, had the honour of being the only parkrun to launch on 29 February in Japan, an honour they will keep for at least another four years!
Event Director Masato Kobayashi, who is in his fifties, had participated in Futakotamagawa parkrun, our very first event in Japan. Masato used to run with his daughter when she was younger but he started hiking in the mountains on Saturday morning when she grew older.
Masato emailed parkrun Japan to bring an event to his local area. He travelled to most parkruns in Japan, often staying an extra night when he was on a business trip in order to join a parkrun nearby, or sometimes he would make a long journey. One Saturday, he woke up at 2am and cycled to a nearby train station to catch the first bullet train of the day to participate in the launch of Hirono Kaigan Koen parkrun, which is where I first met him.
Masato formed a volunteer team in his local area, with the people he had met through parkrun, some of whom were his children’s age. He investigated and tested two parks with those people almost every weekend for 10 months! After much perseverance Hikarigaoka koen parkrun launched, only to be paused after just two events as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Not to be defeated, Masato posts on the event’s Facebook every Saturday to engage the community during lockdown.
In the 11 months between parkrun starting in Japan and the events there being suspended, 5,300 different people have walked, run and volunteered across the 14 Japanese parkruns a total of almost 20,000 times. Encouragingly, 447 are aged 18 and under and 188 are over the age of 65. 17% of all finishers have been walkers and the average finishing time is 1 hour 11 minutes, which shows that parkrun is already succeeding in encouraging many of the people who we wish to have a positive impact on.
Once the restrictions in Japan are relaxed enough for parkrun to resume there, five parkruns are confirmed to launch and we have eight active prospects. We now have seven translation volunteers who live in Japan, Australia and the UK who provide invaluable support with translating operational manuals and blog articles.
I believe the stories of ordinary people in Japan are why we should all feel so privileged to be part of parkrun. They also demonstrate how parkrun will have a significant role to play in improving people’s health and happiness when our beloved events return in the future.
When we do restart in Japan, whenever that may be, parkrun will once again represent a new dawn over the Land of the Rising Sun.
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