Running the World’s Biggest Women-Only Marathon in Japan

This is crazy, I thought. My heavy feet pounded against the road. It was pouring rain and the cold air clung to my damp running attire. Who comes on holiday to Japan and decides to run a 42.2 km race in the cold?

I was in pain. Sore, cold, damp and slightly limping, yet regret had never clawed its way into my mind. It was a privilege to complete the Nagoya Women’s Marathon as my first marathon and be offered the opportunity to see what my body can do.

I didn’t know much about the city of Nagoya before visiting this March, nor was I very well informed about the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. I learnt that it is regarded as the largest women’s marathon in the world. It’s also a beginner-friendly marathon, allowing participants 7 hours to complete the race.

Of the 22,000 women who ran this year, only 3,000 were from outside Japan. I strongly believe that this race deserves to be more widely known on an international level for the importance of what it represents – strong women coming together to push their limits.

The respect, honor, warmth and hospitality at the centre of Japanese culture were captured in this iconic race.

Supporters gathered at every point along the route to cheer us on – despite the rain and cold. Runners took time and effort to hand their rubbish directly to volunteers. Men showed floods of emotion as they cheered from the sidelines in eccentric outfits with encouraging hand-made signs.

I watched literal cries of joy and pride as onlookers recognized runners. I experienced the genuine warmth of strangers as I reached the last 3 kilometres, the smile and euphoria long gone from my face. They cheered me on with shouts of “you can do it!” and “almost there!”. Along the route, I found constant entertainment, support and provision. Crossing the finish line was like nothing I had ever felt before.

It was a breath-taking experience. Literally and figuratively.

It was made all the richer because of three inspiring women: Martha Morales (Mexico), Stacy Conley (USA) and Daniella Morales (Mexico).

Although we’d just met, there was such a sense of camaraderie and support between the four of us that it felt as though I were running with old friends. What a privilege it was to experience the kind of human connection that transcends nationalities, traditions, language and seemingly vast differences. Instead, it celebrates coming together and allows us to be victorious as one.

We all finished the race and celebrated as comrades. It was a heart-warming experience because of the people I was surrounded by.


Don’t get me wrong. There were at least 5 occasions along the way when I contemplated tapping out. As a first-time marathon runner, this experience was one of the toughest things I’ve ever challenged myself to do. Still, the pain is necessary. There’s power in the pain. And you let that power drive you. I saw and shared in that with all the powerful women running alongside me. I will always remember this as one of the best and most memorable experiences of my life.

This race was about something so much bigger than personal achievement. It was about celebrating in alignment with other empowered women.

People run marathons in record times all around the world every day. I didn’t break a record or overcome wildly unassailable obstacles in order to finish, or even take part in, this marathon. But that’s exactly the thing. This race wasn’t limited to celebrating what I could do on an individual level. It was so much more for me.

Being one of 22, 000 women running in the world’s biggest women-only marathon was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Taking to the streets with women of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and fitness levels was a proud and empowering feeling. The sense of support and emotion contained within the running space as well as that of the supporters lining the track was beautiful a beautiful feeling.

Returning to South Africa, I now advocate for the Nagoya Women’s Marathon. The organisation, hospitality and energy of this race reflects the eloquence of Japanese culture. The marathon celebrates strong, dedicated women coming together to challenge themselves, stereotypes and the historical culture of marathon running.

Shiori Ito: the Brave Woman Exposing Japan’s Darker Side

Japan, statistically, is one of the safest destinations in Asia. It’s often thought of by outsiders as a somewhat secretive and unknown society with exciting destinations, bright lights, boundary-breaking outfits and amazing food. But is this the whole story?

Recently, the BBC aired a documentary about Shiori Ito, a young female journalist who alleges to have been drugged and raped by a high profile TV journalist known within both Japan and the US – Noriyuki Yamaguch. (For the sake of this post I will say ‘alleges’ once only.)

Japan’s laws on rape are some of the oldest and least updated in the Western world – until 2017 they had not been updated in 110 years. Prior to Shiori’s case, a rape conviction meant only three years in prison – whereas you would get 5 years if you were convicted of theft – and it was impossible for men to file charges of rape.

The outdated laws also mean that a victim has to prove that they ‘fought back’, and it is police protocol to ask victims to re-enact what happened to them with a life-sized doll. This requirement of re-enactment is considered to be so deeply traumatic that it is described by some as ‘the second rape’.

Crime statistics rely on people reporting incidents – but how likely is it that anyone will come forward in a society that considers silence a polite and recommended custom?

Not only do victims face grim laws, they also face an ingrained Japanese societal norm of silence around sex. This seems like an oxymoron when you consider that Japan’s comic book franchises thrive on highly questionable sexual content. The concept of men forcing themselves on women and women fighting at first before eventually submitting to men is saturated throughout the country’s comic book industry. According to the New York Times“rape is often depicted in manga comics and pornography as an extension of sexual gratification, in a culture in which such material is often an important channel of sex education”.

Frighteningly, the reality gets worse when you look at the of the number of children and young girls who are groped repeatedly on the underground in Japan while wearing school uniform (and these are statistics based on those who came forward – I can only imagine that the actual number is higher).

After a year and a half of getting nowhere with the police, Shiori decided to go public with her case. A decision like this wouldn’t be taken lightly within the Western world, but in Japan, it is almost unheard of. To begin with, Shiori faced public backlash and even death threats. Her family were dismayed and her trauma was discussed, questioned and mocked by (often female) Japanese officials on live TV.

With all of this in mind, consider for a second how brave Shiori is. Consider how much it must have cost her personally to come forward publicly and force Japan to look at its ugly, misshapen laws and attitudes.

There are glaring areas of misconduct within this case. On first arriving at the police station, Shiori asked to talk to a female officer. Only after recounting her story did it turn out that this officer was in the traffic division and unable to file the case, meaning Shiori had to start all over again with a male officer.

Mr Yamaguchi has connections with Shinzo Abe – Japan’s Prime Minister – which put mounting political pressure onto the case, and despite it being normal protocol, the police did not arrest Mr Yamaguchi on his arrival back in Japan.

Her first court case was dismissed and so Shiori went through civil court to sue Mr Yamaguchi for damages – and again she was dismissed on ‘lack of evidence’.

Unlike many other men named throughout the #MeToo movement, Mr Yamaguchi continues to enjoy his career, power and privilege. Shioiri, on the other hand, fled Japan and now lives in London while having to cope with her personal struggle and the public opinion of her.

Despite all of the odds stacked against her, Shiori Ito continues to fight for justice, and there are glimmers of hope shining through. As a direct result of her determination not to be shamed into silence, plus the global force of #MeToo and mounting political pressure from Abe’s opposition, legislation in Japan has changed. Men can now report rape, and those convicted of rape will receive a minimum sentence of 6 years in prison.

Is this glacial change? Of course! But considering Japan’s culture when it comes to violence against women, any inch of ground gained is vital.

Finally, all I can say is – 詩織さん、応援しています! (We are with you, Shiori!)

Read more about Shiori Ito on her website. To help create more rape crisis clinics throughout Japan (clinics are vital to collecting forensic evidence, which is essential for convictions), you can make a donation here. Shiori has also written a book on her experience – Black Box – available in Japanese, French and Korean. If you’re in the UK, you can watch Japan’s Secret Shame on iPlayer now.

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Comfort Women: The Unknown Travesty of World War II

Image Courtesy of Jan Banning (www.JanBanning.com)
Image Courtesy of Jan Banning (www.JanBanning.com)

Growing up, most every student learns about the tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust. The war engulfed nations around the world in bloodshed, spanning from Europe to North America to Southeast Asia, with major consequences for Jewish populations. However, often overlooked is the plight of women during World War II.  In particular, the suffering “comfort women” endured by the Japanese Imperial Army goes nearly unknown.

Representing several occupied countries including Korea, China, and the Philippines, “comfort women” were essentially slaves forced to provide sexual services to men in the Japanese Imperial Army. Often kidnapped or tricked into following military officials, an estimated 200,000 “comfort women” suffered from repeated rapes, physical torture, and beatings at “comfort stations” throughout occupied countries. Many victims died as a result of their injuries while others became infertile due to sexual trauma and/or sexually transmitted diseases. In South Korea, only 63 former “comfort women” survive today.

Japanese soldier Yasuji Kaneki recalls his experiences:

“The women cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.”

In many of the aforementioned countries, female sexuality is taboo.  As a result, survivors have refused to tell personal accounts of the tragedy; however, that is changing as the years progress. The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery in Japan is an NGO that works to restore victims’ dignity and resolve crimes of sexual slavery. The NGO’s objectives include the following:

  1. Acknowledge the war crime;
  2. Reveal the truth in its entirety about the crimes of military sexual slavery;
  3. Make Japan offer an official apology;
  4. Make legal reparations;
  5. Punish those responsible for the war crime;
  6. Accurately record the crime in history textbooks; and
  7. Erect a memorial for the victims of the military sexual slavery and establish a historical museum.

To this day, the Japanese government refuses to acknowledge or apologize for former wrongdoings, causing tensions between the South Korean and Japanese governments to remain high. Outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea stands a memorial statue commemorating “comfort women,” while Japanese government officials continue to argue for the statue’s demolition. Redressed depending on the weather, the female statue serves as a constant reminder to the Japanese of their unacknowledged war crimes.  Every Wednesday, women hold demonstrations next to the statue and demand a formal apology.  The 1000th demonstration was held on December 14, 2011.

Photo Courtesy of Ella Hurrell
Photo Courtesy of Ella Hurrell

Like Nyiem, a survivor who was kidnapped and raped repeatedly at 10 years old, describes her experience:

“I was so young. Within two months my body was completely destroyed. I was nothing but a toy, as a human being I meant nothing.”

With the 57th annual Commission on the Status of Women upon us, we must remember, acknowledge, and learn from the horrors of the past in order to best eliminate and prevent similar acts of violence in the future.

For more information on “comfort women,” please visit the following:

Comfort Women: Untold Stories of Wartime Abuse – NPR

PHOTOS: Comfort Women

Time Running Out for Korean “Comfort Women” – CNN