Photo/IllutrationWearing a “Hinomaru” bib and spilt-toe socks, Japanese runner Shiso Kanakuri moves off after the turn in the marathon race in the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Japan first took part in the Summer Olympics in 1912, when the event was held in Stockholm. Japanese marathon runner Shizo Kanakuri went missing during the race as unusually high heat forced half the competitors to drop out.

Local media reported about a Japanese runner who mysteriously “disappeared” in the middle of the marathon.

Kanakuri is the hero of this year’s “Taiga” historical TV drama series, which is titled “Idaten” (swift runner). Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) started airing the annual yearlong series on Jan. 6.

During his brilliant athletic career, Kanakuri competed in three Olympics and helped launch the Hakone Ekiden, the hugely popular university road relay races held annually on Jan. 2 and 3.

These achievements earned him the sobriquet “father of the Japanese marathon.”

Kanakuri was born in what is now Nagomimachi, a rural town in Kumamoto Prefecture. Visitors to the town find many banners declaring it “the town where Shizo Kanakuri was born” and referring to “The hero of the Taiga drama.”

The 200-year-old house where he was born has been repaired for tourists and a parking lot and a bathroom have been newly built.

“The Taiga series came out of the blue,” says Tadataka Nabeshima, 49, an official at the Nagomimachi municipal government’s division in charge of commerce, industry and tourism. “It offers a great opportunity to promote tourism in the town, but we had no idea where we should start.”

To prepare the town for an expected Kanakuri tourism boom, Nabeshima visited the city of Hamamatsu, where the Taiga drama for 2017, “Onna Joshu Naotora” (Naotora: The Lady Warlord), was set. It depicted the life of Ii Naotora, a 16th-century female feudal lord who ruled in what is now Hamamatsu. The municipal government employee has also sought advice from NHK.

Nabeshima has been lectured on what his town should brace itself for. People will start flooding the town around the time when the second episode of the series is broadcast, but this wave of tourists will disappear quickly after the last episode is aired a year later.

The Nagomimachi government has faced a dilemma. It wants to take advantage of the opportunity to lure tourists but it cannot afford to spend a lot on a tourism campaign.

The local government has decided to build a new museum featuring Kanakuri. But it will be a low-cost prefabricated building and closed when the Taiga drama series ends. It is probably a realistic plan. Dealing with the tourism effects of a Taiga drama series appears to be a formidable challenge for a local government.

Kanakuri returned to Sweden half a century later at the invitation of the Swedish Olympic Committee and finished his run at age 75. He completed the marathon in 54 years, eight months, six days, five hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds, and this extraordinary record was announced at Stockholm's Olympic Stadium.

This outstanding event will no doubt be depicted in this year’s Taiga drama.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 6

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.