Tragedy and Inequality at the Japanese National Championships
In line with regular cycling tradition, news outlets downplayed the severity of events that unfolded during the 2022 Japanese National Cycling Championships. News outlets initially only stated that a dispute caused the women's event to be delayed, although the men's event continued as scheduled. The full information about the reaction by event organizers is available in Japanese as a press release on the Japan Cycling Federation's official website.
Flashback, Japan was host to the 2020 Olympics which featured many cycling events.
The announcement is summarized in the introductory paragraph by Chairman Masayuki Matsumura of Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo, translated into English as follows, "(The) Japan Cycling Championship Road Race scheduled to be held on Sunday Individual Road Race WE (Women's Elite) + WU23 (Women under 23 years old) scheduled to be held on Saturday ... The details and details of the decision to postpone the implementation are as follows. Personal road race The postponement of WE + WU23 is currently under consideration, but the outlook is not clear at this time. In addition, some of the special rules for the tournament have been changed in the process of the decision to postpone the implementation. Less than a week before the tournament was held, the race was postponed, and there were a lot of people involved, including the athletes scheduled to participate. We apologize for any inconvenience and ask for your understanding in this matter."
Understanding the professional racing culture in Japan along with the male-dominated business culture requires a fair amount of background information, which we will keep in brief.
Professional Cycling in Japan
There are a fair amount of international professionals hailing from Japan, such as track legend Koichi Nakano, a consecutive gold medalist in the UCI World Track Championships in the sprint category every year from 1977 to 1986. Within Japan, Koichi is more well-known as one of the most successful cyclists in the keirin circuit.
Japanese keirin racing dates back to 1948, it was originally created as a way to help promote the sale of bicycles in Japan. Today, it is one of the most popular sports in the country. Keirin races are special because of the stringent regulations on the bikes that keep the sport trapped in the past. Cyclists that compete are forced to surrender all electronics so as to not receive outside assistance and sleep in the same quarters as their competitors. Only Keirin-approved equipment is allowed to be used, which keeps the sport looking more like cycling was in the 1980s. For people outside of the nation, it is difficult to understand how popular national icons such as Keirin racing are. BikeRadar announced that top cyclists can earn up to US$2,000,000 and that even average riders can earn US$100,000 a year -- Which is less than those on the UCI Continental circuit and even many on the UCI World Tour stage as Canadian Cycling Magazine reports, "Pro continental rider's salaries range from around just over $40,000 to $200,000. The minimum wage for male pro continental level cyclists is around $44,000. The minimum for WorldTour is just under $60,000." Also bear in mind that keirin racing is largely a private party, with foreign professionals rarely ever given an opportunity inside the professional circuit.
The same concept also applies to national events, as local races often bend UCI regulations in favor of local tradition. One example is the Japanese course of the UCI Gran Fondo events, which are annual international events that allow amateur riders the opportunity to earn UCI national and world championship titles. Unlike many World Tour events that have multiple classification winners such as mountains and sprint, the UCI Gran Fondo only recognizes GC contenders -- in both road race and time trial. The top 20% qualify to compete at the Gran Fondo World Championship. The events are largely viewed as the top level of the amateur circuit, with world champions being given an opportunity to earn the coveted rainbow jersey. Unlike other events, the Japanese leg of the Gran Fondo -- the Niseko Classic -- created its own self-awarded categories for KOM and sprint.
Equality in professional cycling has been a long battle, most recently the issue has been a disproportional amount of live coverage over the events such as the RideLondon Classique that breached UCI regulations by failing to provide a fair amount of coverage of the event. Another issue before that was the argument over hugely disproportional prize pools. While the men's events often feature top-level sponsors that provide the absolute best gear possible, many women's teams are using a step down such as Le Col-Wahoo using Ultegra at the Tour of Flanders.
While professional cycling has its own issues with equality, Japan brings it to the next level. In 2020, the head of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoshiro Mori was forced to step down from his position after publicly stating at a conference that, "women talk too much," implying that their voices did not matter. The problem is deeply rooted in local culture, as even the Japanese royal bloodline is only continued through male heirs, a move that convinced many Japanese royals to marry out of their position. In the business sector, there is such a large gender gap within managerial roles that just this year, 2022, new regulations impacted 4,000 requiring more women in managerial positions.
Looking at the bigger picture with all the background information surrounding the local environments, it is sad but unsurprising that the Japan Cycling Federation (JCF), completely run by men, decided to punish riders at the women's national event after riders requested UCI compliant team support. And yes, every name on the entire JCF member organization branches in every prefecture attributed to individuals are men.
The Show Must go on (But Only for Men)
The main issue with the JCF's decision to cancel/postpone the event is that the men's events were allowed to continue. This entire month, June, is when national championships take place across the globe. US Nationals took place from June 23rd to 26th. British nationals took place on June 26th. Chinese national championships took place from June 18th to 19th. South Korean championships will happen on June 30th. Shortly put, June is the month for national championships.
The men's national events went on as scheduled, with Yukiya Ashiro claiming victory and Sohei Kaneko claiming the TT victory (more results available on ProCyclingStats). And that was the main issue, that organizers canceled the women's event due to riders requesting support from team cars in line with UCI regulations, seemingly as punishment for raising concerns. Meanwhile, the men's event continued as planned.
Eri Yonamine was one of the first people to vocalize her opposition to the decision made by JCF.
Her statement reached ~64,300 views at the time of publishing this article. One local commentator replied, "Eri did [a] practical suggestion to JCF that limitation of team cars and group sharing of them as UCI do. Her words REP who wants to race along [with] UCI regulations. But JCF denied her request and canceled WE’s race like a punishment. Why such [a] crazy matter happens like this?"
For those unaware, Yonamine won the national title in 2013 (RR + TT), 2014 (CC MTB), 2015 (TT), 2016 (RR + TT), 2017 (RR +TT), 2018 (RR + TT), and 2019 (RR + TT). The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic and she did not attend the 2021 event. She was the favorite to win this year, but with June soon coming to a close and the women's national championships hanging in limbo, it is unknown if she will be given the opportunity to race for the national title this year.