Fifty years ago in the Japanese city of Ohme was first held the Ohme-Hochi 30K Marathon of 18.64 miles. In a country where running is truly revered and honored - with its early Olympic Marathon Trials in 1911 and national marathon championships dating back to 1913 - traditions are respected with great regard.

With the storied history of the Boston Marathon that dates back to 1897 and includes six Japanese post-war champions from 1951-1969, an international relationship of kindred spirits seemed fatefully inevitable. And so it was on October 15, 1975 - with thanks in part to Boston race director Will Cloney and sponsoring Tokyo newspaper managing director Yoichi Furukawa - that a mutual agreement was set in place which resulted in the sending and inviting of top athletes to each other’s event that remains to this day.

“The relationship continued the Boston tradition of welcoming Japanese athletes to Boston following World War II. The Boston Marathon was the first race to welcome Japanese athletes to the US roads after the war,” stated Boston Athletic Association (BAA) executive director Tom Grilk. “They were also kind enough to give an appreciation of Japanese culture to those who visited to compete. For the organizers in Ohme, the exchange offered a means to bring some of the Boston tradition to Japan.”

Added BAA vice president Gloria Ratti, “They’ve emulated everything that we’ve done. It’s tremendous! When they came here, they observed and brought back all these ideas - ceremonies, pasta party, race program, results book. And they devote a lot of newspaper coverage to it.”

The Ohme Athletic Association (OAA) - established in 1936 - and “The Hochi Shimbun” newspaper - whose publisher predates the BAA by 15 years - has co-organized the event since its inception in 1967. It was sparked by the success of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, where Japan won 29 medals (16 gold), including marathon bronze by Kokichi Tsuburaya.

“We Japanese are very proud of [Tsuburaya],” said former “Hochi Shimbun” promotion director and current Ohme Marathon Foundation director Masaru Otake via interpreting by former Japan Association of Athletics Federations (JAAF) official Yoshibumi Honda. After the Games, the JAAF “… decided to strengthen and brush up level of long-distance runners. [OAA] proposed to JAAF as site of road-runners training site. Because Ohme city has such good surrounding and training site - [and] also ‘Hochi Shimbun’ has similar idea to promote athletes development program - [this was] best timing to promote marathon together with Olympic athletes such as Kokichi Tsuburaya with fun-runners. At that time, there is no definition of ‘road race’ in Japan, so used ‘marathon’ on behalf of full marathon.”

Eight years later, in the fall of 1975, Ohme reached out to Boston as a way to show their thanks, appreciation, and respect.

“They understood the significance of running in Boston - [even] early on back in the Seventies - and how important the event was to running worldwide,” explained Guy Morse, BAA race/executive/external affairs director from 1985-2012. “They formalized the agreement so that they could plan it every year to make sure that it would happen because people change, personnel changes, company changes. But the agreement was maintained so that there was the framework every year to make sure it happened.”

Quinquennially since 1975, officials from the Boston Athletic Association and the Ohme-Hochi 30K sign the Boston Marathon/Ohme-Hochi 30K Athlete Exchange Program extension agreement, such as this one from 1995. (Courtesy BAA.)

At first, each race’s winner received the invitation and was accompanied by an athletic association representative. That criteria changed over the years to include a broader chance for other athletes to compete.

“It’s become not necessarily the winners but someone locally who did well because they [Ohme] really want the Boston connection,” said Morse. “It’s one of those relationships, like the race itself, that really continues to ebb and flow and evolve over time, so the delegation was small some years and larger other years; men [and then also] females representing - a real mix over the years. There was no standard to it; it was just whatever felt right any given year. And it was important that the organization(s) be represented and every year reconnect.”

The quinquennially-signed “Letter of Consent of Affiliation” is purposely worded for changes and adjustments. “The agreement itself is loosely defined so there’s lots of flexibility,” Morse noted. “It’s amazing that it’s 40 years old; eight five-year agreements!”

Megumi Amako, 14th at the 2015 Boston (2:39:08), was selected via her commanding 5:27-margin win at Ohme (1:46:52) two months earlier. “I was more happy than anything once I found out I was chosen and invited. I knew from before about the relationship before I ran the Ohme marathon,” she said through Kay Horiuchi, interpreter for these Japanese runners and whose Japan-born father, Minoru Horiuchi, was a longtime BAA board member and liaison. “This my first time in America. I took it all in. I was taken aback by everything. The city of Boston is beautiful.”

Based on the 1975 Boston Marathon, champion Bill Rodgers of the Greater Boston Track Club and third-place finisher Tom Fleming of New Jersey were the first men selected for Ohme.

“We had so much fun,” recalled Rodgers, who two months earlier finished third at the 1975 Fukuoka Marathon in Japan. “The Japanese officials from Ohme treated us great - first class! We were treated like kings, baseball stars! We weren’t paid any money, as you know in those days, but we would get per diems and they’d take us around to great restaurants [and we’d] get wined and dined. It was just amazing the Japanese history, the society, culture, food, the people.”

In 1:33:07, Rodgers won that 10th annual Ohme as the first American to do so (Fleming was third). “I think we were the only Americans - that I know of in the race - and we were contending for the win. I remember Tom and I coming around the halfway mark and we were in the lead. It’s out and back - a pretty tough course - but great weather. It was a great experience.”

Ten months after winning the 1975 Boston Marathon, Bill Rodgers breaks the tape at the 10th annual Ohme-Hochi 30K in Ohme, Japan, in 1976, the first year of the Boston Marathon/Ohme-Hochi 30K Athlete Exchange Program. (Courtesy Bill Rodgers)

Also in the field of nearly 8,000 in the 1976 Ohme were 263 women. Of the 13 who finished, 1974 Boston winner Michiko “Miki” Gorman of California was first in 1:57:37. Three months later, the initial Ohme contingent at the 1976 “Run for the Hoses” Boston Marathon included Yoshiaki Unetani (2:31:08) and Fumikatsu Okita (3:09:40).

That inaugural five-year agreement saw Ohme wins from Rodgers (1976), Gorman (1976), and Randy Thomas (1980), the latter of whom at the time set a course-record 1:30:44.

Rodgers, who returned to Ohme in 2006 and ran the accompanying 10K, appreciated Japan’s early respect. “I really got a sense that the Japanese understood the quality of the marathoners is [that of] professional athletes. It wasn’t understood in America [then] but it was understood in Japan. I really loved that, being a hard-driving marathoner myself. It was a great honor to be representing the US and the BAA when I was there. I took it real serious.”

Also within the first five-year pact were several top-10 performances at both races, including Americans Jack Fultz (5th in 1977), Gary Tuttle (3rd in 1978), Ronald Wayne (6th in 1978) at Ohme, and Japan’s Yutaka Taketomi (9th in 1978) at Boston.

Bill Rodgers's certificate from the 10th annual Ohme-Hochi 30K (also called the Ohme/Hochi Marathon) in Ohme, Japan, on February 15, 1976, and sponsored by The Hochi Shimbun newspaper company and the Ohme Athletic Association.  Transcribed by Shin Horiuchi, it reads - from the vertical columns left to right - as follows: The Hochi Shimbun. An association of track and field, Ohme- City. Showa 51 (1976), Feb. 15th. You participated in the referenced rate and successfully finished with great fight, Mr. Bill Rodgers. 30 kilometer race. 10th Ohme-Hochi Marathon.30 kilometer race. 10th Ohme-Hochi Marathon. An anniversary for the cooperation with the Boston Marathon. Certification of a Finisher. (Courtesy Bill Rodgers).

As a result of the success of this initial Athlete Exchange Program, it was agreed upon to sign another five-year term and then ad infinitum. Triumphs continued with American wins at Ohme by Patti (Catalano) Dillon (1981), Kirk Pfeffer (1982), Greg Meyer (1983), Debbie Mueller (1985), Eileen Claugus (1987), and Jason Lehmkuhle (2011). Top years for Ohme athletes at Boston included 1987 for the men (Tomoyuki Taniguchi in 5th, Hideki Kita in 9th) and 1999 for the women (Mitsuko Sugihara in 8th).

Recalled Meyer, who two months after his Ohme victory also won Boston, “It was a great experience. I was running really well that winter. I don’t know how I got invited, but to me it was my last really-hard long tune-up race [for Boston].”

But athletic prowess was - and is - not the sole purpose of the agreement. The social, cultural, and global connection and impact between the two road races and nations is the real impetus and reward. “Because of our relationship with Ohme,” said BAA president Joann Flaminio, “I have an appreciation of Japanese culture, Japanese art, Japanese customs, Japanese tradition, that I never would have had had I not been exposed to the Ohme marathon road race. I have made lifelong Japanese friends because of our relationship.”

Grilk - who has lived in Tokyo, and as an official represented the BAA at Ohme and also competed in the race as well - retains a great affection for Japan. “Ohme, and the neighboring town of Tachikawa, were my children’s first introduction to life in Japan, at age 14. They immediately experienced a sense of safety and welcome which continues to mark their view of Japan,” he noted.

Boston Athletic Association president Joann Flaminio signs the Boston Marathon/Ohme-Hochi 30K Athlete Exchange extension agreement. (Photo by Paul Clerici)

Personifying the point of international friendships, Grilk’s fondness for Furukawa’s generosity still remains long after his passing. “[He] was one of the most important and endearing elements of my wife’s and my years in Japan. He personally introduced us to varied and arcane elements of Japanese culture and the arts to which we would never otherwise have had such intimate access - bunraku (puppet theatre); the noh theater and dance; kabuki (“dance-drama”); traditional music with the shamisen (lute) and other ancient instruments; yabusame (running-horse archery); ikebana (flower display); the tea ceremony; origami (paper-folding art); sumo (wrestling); Japanese baseball; and on from these.”

Nicholas Arciniaga of Arizona was twice selected to represent the BAA at Ohme in 2009 and 2015. Each time he visited, he marveled at the culture. “I didn’t know about how they were sister races; that the top guys go out there to run. Once I was selected, I bought a translation book, researched the race course, and I tried to learn as much as I could so I wouldn’t slip over any lines of etiquette or anything like that. The Japanese culture was a big learning experience for me.”

Meyer also was unaware of traditional Japanese customs - the exchange of business cards; ceremonial gift-giving; bowing - although he was notified beforehand that he was expected to attend several events as a US and Boston representative.

Ohme Mayor Toshio Takeuchi, left, and Boston Athletic Association president Joann Flaminio, sign the Boston Marathon/Ohme-Hochi 30k Athlete Exchange Program five-year extension agreement, in 2015. (Photo by Paul Clerici)

“I knew there’d be events that you’d go to, so we brought good clothes and we got there almost a week before,” he said. “We actually stayed at a naval base one night and then they took you to this resort at the base of Mount Fuji. It was fabulous! You can’t ask for a nicer host than the Japanese. But when the gun goes off, they want to crush you. And that’s okay. It was just another race in a different language.”

Morse, whose tenure included six five-year agreements, realized early that this was not just a road-race exchange of athletes.

“The race is very important and it’s good for the athletes,” he noted, “but the relationship between the countries was critically important. The cultural exchange of it became as important as the athletic event itself. It became more than that in terms of the cultural side of the exchange, and likewise when they come [to Boston].”

And that sentiment has remained throughout the decades, as echoed by Flaminio, who has also represented the BAA at Ohme. “Obviously the exchange is about a road race. But I think what’s been most revealing for me is this notion that the understanding of the different cultures; [that] we get to go there, they get to come here, and in so doing we not only appreciate the athleticism of the other country, but we also get a better understanding of their culture and their hospitality and their country; how things are different.”

Augmenting that exchange are events that celebrate the relationship. Representatives are expected to speak at some occasions, and itineraries include ceremonial gatherings, media opportunities, gift exchanges, tours, and in the US has included visits to Hopkinton, Cape Cod, museums, and even a clambake dinner and a show in the theatre district.

Kiyokatsu Hasegawa, 21st at the 2015 Boston (2:20:42), thoroughly enjoyed his visit. “It was beautiful city to run in, especially along the Charles. I was able to run with other people. I was taken to the Legal [Seafood restaurant] and I had lobster, steamers, oysters - I took in the town of Boston! I from such a small area, nobody really knew or thought anything of me coming to Boston. But my parents are so proud of me. I didn’t even know how big of a deal I was until I got here. And my parents made special trip and were able to come to this trip. I think they had better time than I did - they went to see Red Sox and had a great trip!”

Regarding gift-giving, some of the items presented by the BAA include Boston Marathon pins and Boston gifts that reflect the city’s rich history. And gifts from Ohme often include hand-crafted ceramics. “Very colorful, beautiful, exquisite presentation bowls and smaller bowls all made there,” marveled Morse of the Ohme items. “Just beautiful.”

As per custom, gifts are presented each year, including these handcrafted Japanese plates in 2015. (Photo by Paul Clerici).

In addition to the obvious differences in course length and layout - 42-kilometer point-to-point Boston; 30-kilometer out-and-back Ohme - there are many other differences that stand out. For some of the Japanese runners, it’s exuberant spectators or the field size.

“In Japan, I think, out of respect, they just being quiet,” noted Miharu Shimokado, 12th female at the 2016 Boston (2:39:21). “But in Boston, with all the energy and everything, I ran faster and faster toward the end and I was very excited to hit the finish line.”

As for Amako, it was the Boston field of over 30,000 entrants and nearly 27,000 finishers that caught her attention. “There was many runners. I was very impressed with how many people were running. I knew it was major feat for me to be coming to Boston and participate in Boston Marathon and I was taken aback with how many people I was going to be running with.”

When Arciniaga first ran Ohme, he knew nothing about the race or the course, so it was all new and different to him. “I didn’t run on the course [beforehand]. We were able to drive over the course the day before. It’s basically on a small, two-lane highway going up the side of a mountain and you turn around and come back down. It’s a small, one-lane road with 52,000 people into one lane once everybody turns around. It’s pretty exciting to race.”

Course setups differ as well, from markers, directional signage, support, and even post-race activities.

“The biggest difference for me was the water stations and fueling stations. They have little Dixie cups that are about two ounces, so I learned to grab two cups at a time because I wasn’t expected to get much,” recalled Arciniaga. “And the winner gets a gift from every sponsor of the race! The winner was up there for about 10 minutes getting all the gifts, and he’d have to hand it off to one of his assistants as he was getting them.”

And the finish-area design was something that impressed Ratti. “What amazed me most was the finish line with hundreds of potted chrysanthemum plants lined along the way. It was just beautiful.”

One of the similarities of the courses, although unbeknownst to some at the time, are hills. “Somebody said it was hilly,” quipped Meyer of Ohme, “and it was!” Amako agreed with that sentiment - for Boston. “I didn’t know and I didn’t realize that there were going to be so many hills up and down,” she smiled.

For Hasegawa, he simply focused on Boston once he was selected due to his 2015 Ohme win. “Once I found out I was coming, I trained all through the winter and I look forward to the Boston Marathon. That’s all I really thought of. I wanted to do my personal best in Boston and I was able to do that. [In Boston] we did course inspection a couple of days before and I had no idea there were going to be so many hills.”

Ohme Mayor Toshio Takeuchi, center, presents 2015 Boston Marathon winners Caroline Rotich, left, and Lelisa Desisa, with customary gifts from Japan. (Photo by Paul Clerici)

Like with most runners, the excitement of the Boston Marathon can get the adrenaline going. It is no different for the elite. “I was so excited from the beginning that I think I went out too fast from the very beginning and I realize that halfway through and it was pretty tough on my body,” recalled Hasegawa. “Heartbreak Hill completely wrecked my knees and legs. [Ohme] is a there-and-back [course, but] in my mind it is kind of similar - it is uphill [the first half] and the back is downhill. When I ran Ohme [in 2015], I did negative split. But [in Boston], I did not do that,” he laughed.

Another challenge can be food. Japanese delicacies include fish, sushi, rice, spices, soups, octopus, pork belly, jellyfish, and even barnacles. “Food is my biggest indulgence,” Arciniaga acknowledges. “The hotel we were staying in had eggs, bacon - traditional American breakfast. But whenever I do travel, I try to sample and try out food wherever I am. Culture’s food, so it’s not something that’s new to me.”

And there seems no end in sight for this unique Boston-Ohme exchange. “We are very proud of our relationship with BAA,” said Otake via Yoshibumi. “Having exchange program to send officials and athletes every year - with BAA [and] one of world oldest marathon race - athletes are very proud of participating [in the] race. Every five years both parties extend agreement, and hoping this good relation will continue for ever.”

Morse reinforces, “[It’s] predicated with the complete understanding that this will continue on forever, whatever forever is. When it started - and in its younger years - it was pretty rare. These exchanges didn’t happen. It wasn’t a 40-year agreement or a 100-year agreement [at first, but] in theory it probably will be.”

At the 2015 extension agreement ceremony in Boston, from left, Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A) vice president Gloria Ratti, Ohme Athletic Association (O.A.A) director Seikichi Nakamura, Canon Athlete Club Kyushu (CACK) coach Akira Shimizu, Ohme Mayor Toshio Takeuchi, B.A.A. president Joann Flaminio, CACK athlete Megumi Amako, 2015 Boston Marathon women's winner Caroline Rotich, 2015 Boston Marathon men's champion Lelisa Desisa, JR East Running Team (JRERT) athlete Kiyokatsu Hesegawa, JRERT coach Yoshichika Yamada, O.A.A. vice president Hitoshi Nakano. (Photo by Paul Clerici)

Paul Clerici is a Massachusetts based writer and photographer. An accomplished runner, Clerici has raced more than 40 marathons and run the Boston Marathon more than 20 years in a row. 

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