Bruce Ikemizu, head of commodities trading at Standard Bank Plc in Tokyo, wakes most days at 3 a.m. to run as much as a half marathon before logging on to Twitter to check how his 80 running club mates are doing.
“This is my favorite part of the day,” said Ikemizu, 48, who has dropped 15 kilograms and three pants sizes since he began the sport in 2007. He’s part of the running fad that’s spreading across Japan, fueling spending on sportswear and shoes at a time when overall consumption in the nation is slowing.
Two decades of deflation, an aging population and the world’s largest public debt have hampered growth in Japan and boosted the popularity of low-cost sports such as jogging and hiking. The increasing number of middle-aged men looking to get in shape has caught the attention of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Mizuho Financial Group, which are sponsoring the Tokyo Marathon for the first time in February.
“There’s no doubt that this running boom pushed us to be a sponsor,” said Masahiko Maeda, a public relations manager at BMW Japan in Tokyo. “Our customers want to age in a cool way.”
Japan’s $5.6 trillion economy is about the same size as it was 20 years ago and average monthly household spending fell 1.4 percent last year, according to the statistics bureau. Bucking that trend, nationwide running shoe shipments rose 7.7 percent in 2009, Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute said in October.
“The idea of running just to be healthy is extraordinarily outdated,” said Tad Hayano, the 52-year-old chief operating officer of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation. “We are targeting sexy and rich older men.”
Asics Corp., which gets 74 percent of revenue from athletic shoes, aims to double sales to 400 billion yen ($4.8 billion) in the next five years by targeting new runners, said Toshiyuki Sano, a finance executive at the Kobe, Japan-based company. Shares of Asics have risen 14 percent this year, compared with a 3.8 percent decline in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average.
Mizuno Corp., an Osaka-based sporting goods maker, on Nov. 10 raised its net income forecast by 25 percent in the year ending in March, citing sales of running shoes.
More than 27 percent of the nation’s 127 million people jogged last year, up from 23 percent in 2008, according to the Japan Productivity Center. Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Olympics, and Mizuki Noguchi took gold in 2004.
Running to get fit or build endurance is nothing new in Japan. The monks of Tendai, known as the marathon monks, run 40 kilometers per day for a hundred days in a row. During the popular Hakone Ekiden, groups race in relays covering more than 200 kilometers over two days during the New Year. Now the sport is attracting people for its trendy image as well.
“The marathon craze is helping consumer spending,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. “Targeting sexy older men is a good strategy to help the economy as their purse strings are much looser than those of young people.”
World record holder Haile Gebrselassie is scheduled to join 35,000 runners at the Tokyo Marathon on Feb. 27, after more than 335,000 people applied for the slots. Other cities including Nara, Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe are starting their own marathons.
Yoshio Kuno, a 57-year-old managing director of Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s Tokyo office, has run the 100-kilometer race in Hokkaido six times, completing three of the races.
“I advise beginners to keep running so they can wear a slim Italian suit,” Kuno said. “No one wants to look uncool even when they get older.”
Ikemizu, who logged 860 kilometers in October, runs regularly around the Imperial Palace, one of the most popular routes for Tokyo joggers because the 5-kilometer (3-mile) course has no traffic lights and offers scenic views of the moat and Tokyo Tower. Kuno said he stopped running there because of the crowds.
Another highlight on the trail is a public bath a few hundred meters from the palace. The Inariyu bath has been reporting a 15 percent increase in customers every year for the past five years, according to owner Hirofumi Hasegawa.
“I don’t want any more people coming in because many think this is a locker room,” said Hasegawa. His wife buys monthly running magazines for resting joggers.
Adidas AG, Asics, and other companies have opened 18 rest stations for runners around the palace, providing rental jogging clothes and shoes, showers and a cafeteria, according to the Chiyoda Ward Tourist Association.
The jogging fad has also started matchmaking events such as the “Running Connection” organized by Chisako Matsui, who held the gathering near the Imperial Palace in October. Her next event, on Dec. 19, is Christmas-themed.
“Running makes finding marriage partners easier,” said Matsui, director of planning at Media Communications Inc. in Tokyo. “You can tell a lot about a person by jogging with them.”
More than a fifth of the nation’s females jogged last year, the Japan Productivity Center reported in July. Women in their 20s were the keenest runners, with a 30 percent participation rate, the center said.
For Hayano, the organizer of the Tokyo Marathon, that’s the perfect match.
“Once we succeed in grabbing the attention of sexy older men, like we did with women, running will rock the nation,” Hayano said.