On a Sunday afternoon in July 1912, more than 18,000 spectators watching the finish of a marathon in Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium stood, sat, and waited cheek-by-jowl in the sweltering heat for 34 men who would never arrive. Of the 68 marathon runners who set off at the sound of the starting pistol hours earlier, 32 dropped out, one died, and one—as legend would have it—simply disappeared.
In Sweden, Shizo Kanakuri would become known as the “Japanese who vanished” (japanen som försvann), a legendary figure whose disappearance inspired literature and television, captured headlines, and generated its share of untruths. But while he was supposedly MIA in that country, Kanakuri carved out a lengthy and respected career in his homeland over the next few decades, becoming known as “the father of the Japanese marathon” (日本マラソンの父) thanks to his unwavering dedication to the sport and his work as a mentor to generations of runners.
How did someone who “vanished” in one country also inspire another to take up marathoning?
Race Day in Stockholm
Shizo Kanakuri—sometimes Romanized as Kanaguri—was one of only two athletes representing Japan at the games of the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm, which was the first to feature Japanese competitors. His performance was highly anticipated, as just a few months earlier, the 20-year-old student reportedly set a world record by running a 25-mile qualifying marathon in two hours and 32 minutes.
But the race conditions were far from ideal. First, Kanakuri had to endure a rough 18-day voyage by boat and train to even reach the games. Then he had to battle temperatures nearing 90°F, which was unusually hot for Sweden. And since the science of sports nutrition in 1912 was ill-equipped to prepare athletes for such elements, runners weren't even properly hydrated.
About halfway through the 25-mile race (the modern Olympic Marathon distance wasn’t standardized until 1921), in the Stockholm suburb of Tureberg, an exhausted and overheated Kanakuri stopped running and was helped at the side of the race route by a Swedish family who provided him with buns, juice, and a place to rest. He quickly made the decision to drop out of the race rather than risk exhaustion, or worse (a Portuguese competitor who pressed on would later collapse mid-race and pass away in the hospital the following day).
Kanakuri quietly returned to his Olympic lodging and then traveled back to Japan, with some sources later saying he neglected to alert officials that he was OK after failing to reach the finish line. But this turned out to just be a small setback for his career—Kanakuri continued to train, break records, and compete, including at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. He became a champion of his sport and the Olympic movement in his home country, coached young runners and athletes, and even taught geography.
These are hardly the activities of a man who “vanished” during a race, but that didn’t stop the story of a missing Japanese runner from spreading throughout Sweden over the next decades.
A Swedish Legend Grows
The official report of the Stockholm Olympics makes no mention of a missing marathoner, though some sources later claimed that police did search for him in the weeks after the race. It was only in the 1950s that the legend of an AWOL Kanakuri really began to take shape, championed in part by a Swedish sports journalist named Oscar Söderlund: He jokingly invited his readers, should they find Kanakuri still running through the Stockholm suburbs, to tell him that the race was finished and he could go home. But, as it turns out, he was far from the only one to perpetuate the myth.
In 1953, the same year that Kanakuri was in the news as the coach of Boston Marathon champion Keizo Yamada, his supposed disappearance inspired a collection of short stories in Sweden about others who had mysteriously vanished. (The short story collection is dedicated to Kanakuri, but he doesn't feature as a character.) The next year, according to a translated article by historian Björn Lundberg, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet ran a short piece claiming that Kanakuri “remained in Sweden, took the surname Svensson, worked as a gardener, chimney sweep, and baker.” Sightings and rumors of a displaced Kanakuri wandering throughout Stockholm and its suburbs would continue for decades.
Sports commentator A. Lennart Julin wrote that the whole story surrounding the runner could have just been a passing joke that took on a life of its own. He speculated that stories of Japanese “holdouts,” soldiers on remote Pacific islands who continued to fight on after the end of World War II, helped fuel rumors of a Japanese marathoner lost in the Swedish wilderness.
Lundberg, meanwhile, theorizes that the myth likely survived for so long in part because people in Japan weren't necessarily keeping up with news out of Sweden, just as Swedish readers probably weren't keeping tabs on the latest news out of the world of Japanese marathon runners. “[Perhaps] language barriers and geographical distances invite the 'creation of ignorance,'” he wrote.
Whatever the case may be, the tale seemed to be confined inside the country's borders—Kanakuri himself was apparently unaware of his growing legend overseas.
Life's A Marathon
All good myths need to be exposed at some point, and in 1962, the journalist Söderlund, who loved to tell Kanakuri’s story, finally decided to track down the famed Olympian in Japan. Five years later, Kanakuri was invited to return to Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium and, as a publicity stunt, run across the finish line he had failed to reach nearly 55 years earlier.
There weren’t 18,000 fans on hand to cheer, but news media was there to capture the event and broadcast Kanakuri’s story to millions worldwide. The result landed him a Guinness World Record with the jokey title of the "longest time to complete a marathon" at 54 years 249 days 5 hours 32 minutes 20.3 seconds. Before heading back to Japan, he even stopped by the villa that he had sought refuge at during the race decades before. Fittingly, Bengt Petré, the son of the original host, served the aging runner a glass of orange juice.
Kanakuri lived until 1983, dying at the age of 92 (marathoning, perhaps, is good for longevity). His birthplace in the town of Nagomi is now a museum and the epic two-day relay marathon between Tokyo and Hakone he helped found over a century ago is held every year, attracting millions of Japanese television viewers.
In 2019, a 48-episode Japanese miniseries about the Olympic movement in Japan featured Kanakuri (played by Kankurô Nakamura) as one of the two central characters. Kanakuri is still remembered in Sweden, too: He was the subject of a special exhibit commemorating the centennial of the Stockholm games in 2012.
Though the Swedish summer heat ended Shizo Kanakuri’s 1912 Olympic dreams, he maintained a sense of humor about his legacy. Upon finally finishing the marathon he had dropped out of five decades earlier, the formerly “missing” Kamakura told reporters, “It’s been a long race, but then I got myself a wife, six children, and 10 grandchildren during it, and that takes time, you know.”