#18 Takeru Kobayashi
2012-12-26 / Interview & Text: Rena Suno, Video and Editing: Takashi Ikezawa, Creative Direction: Hitoshi Sagaseki
Takeru Kobayashi is a professional Japanese competitive eater living in New York. He became famous after setting a world record of eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes by doubling the world record at that time when he joined Nethan’s Coney Island hot dog-eating contest in 2001. As a professional competitive eater he won the contests for 6 consecutive times as well as breaking world records many times. We asked him a reason of becoming a competitive eater, his training methods and his view of Japan outside of Japan.
Interview with Takeru Kobayashi
– What made you become a professional competitive eater?
While I was in college I participated in an event to eat curry rice for 3 lbs. Although I had not prepared for it at all, I was able to eat 11.24 lbs and broke the record at that time by 0.22 lbs. A friend of mine who joined the event with me was so surprised that he introduced me to a competitive eating TV program and I was featured there for the first time.
Winning the competitive eating contest on that TV program pushed me to believe that I could train myself and continue competing in future contests. The more I trained, the stronger I became, which created more interest within myself. That is when I truly realized that what I was doing was similar to what professional athletes do in any sport. Therefore I considered competitive eating to be a kind of sport and decided to pursue my career as a professional competitive eater.
– What kind of training have you been doing every day?
If a competitor has a large stomach from the beginning, he/she will already have a big advantage. If a competitor has a smaller stomach, then the challenge to create a flexible stomach is the key to making yourself a strong player. Therefore I gradually increase the amount of water that I drink about two months before a contest to make my stomach move. A stomach is made of muscle and stretching the stomach helps to increase its flexibility. Once I expand my stomach enough, I start training to eat.
The content of my training is created by me. I am probably the first professional competitive eater who makes a living from it professionally. No training method had been established yet when I started my career. I have tried many ways of my body to see what works for me and found a way to drink a large amount of water as a part of my training. Now most competitive eaters follow my method.
While you make your stomach bigger, you feel a gap between the flexibility of your stomach and the ability of digesting food. It takes more time to increase the latter ability. Therefore you cannot eat foods to the extent that you fully fulfill your stomach. I also have to think about what to eat when I prepare for contests. When I am tired of eating I take protein from supplement powder. I also include weight training and running in my training to keep my body healthy in addition to my eating training.
My challenge as a professional competitive eater is very interesting because there are no established training methods. Athletes have their physical peek in their early twenties, whatever sport they are playing. I thought this idea also applied to competitive eating. However in the field of competitive eating it is possible for you to break your record even after your physical peek if you find a better way to train your body. In fact I have kept breaking my record by changing to different eating techniques, and the content of my training. When I started my career, I thought I would retire by 30 years old but I now believe that I have a possibility of breaking my record for 10 more years.
I think larger people have a bigger chance of winning if they do the same training. Competitive eating contests should be done by different height categories to be fair to participants once this sport becomes popular. Although I am smaller than other participants I have more experience, knowledge and techniques than they do. Competitive eating has multiple factors to win a game as other sports do. I think I am stronger than the other competitors in the total of these factors such as my training environment, training methods and the ability to concentrate on training. I keep in mind to exceed others in that way.
– Please tell us about the most memorable contest in your career.
The most memorable contest in my career was my first participation in the Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest in 2001. It was my first time in the USA. I clearly remember the moment that changed the view I had of myself, when I looked out at the audience during the contest. Before the contest, nobody was interested in me and some people even teased me by saying, “you look like a high school student”, “son, your thigh is thinner than my forearm!” Therefore my winning of the contest by doubling the previous world record astonished not only participants but also the audience.
The contest was for 12 minutes and I hit the world record at that time in just three minutes. Then the surprised crowd in front of me began to cheer for me, even though this contest was held on July 4th, the American holiday, Independence Day. It was the moment when the audience decided to keep that interest in how much I would finish with in the end. It is still a big reminder that I was able to break the previous world record by training my body, and to feel a moment that the audience changed the way they looked at me- when they saw something which seemed unbelievable happening in front of them.
It has also been a good experience (after leaving Nathan’s), to be in many events and new competitions, because it has made me realize how many devoted American fans I actually have, and how much support I have received from people around me from my 10 year career in the USA.
– What are you thinking during a competitive eating contest?
I concentrate only on eating and I am thinking of how to deliver the food to my stomach. For example, while I eat hot dogs I pay attention to how long I put the next bun into water before eating it, so that it is in the best condition to swallow. I also care about how much time is left, etc. These are the same feelings that any other sports athlete feels. The feelings of excitement/anxiety before the competition, the cheering, the upset feeling of disappointment with a loss and the feeling of being elated with self-approval and achievement when you know you have shed sweat and tears for this win!
I like winning by eating at the same pace as others in the beginning and then gradually accelerating my eating speed. This way, I can compete with others until the end of the contest with a stable mental condition with enough energy left in my body. I am not very interested in competing with others, but rather myself. It was hard for me when I did not have any rival competitors during my winning years at the Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog-eating contest for 6 consecutive times because I had to face only myself. When I competed only with others, I did not feel I was moving forward no matter how many times I won contests because I did not challenge my limit. I changed my style to challenge my own record and this attitude also changed my eating style to speed up from the beginning of contests. This allowed me to break my record easily.
– Can you tell us about your recent project called “Hunger”? Please also let us know about your activities outside of competitive eating.
“Hunger” is a project in a magazine issued by a winery company called White Zinfandel. Artists expressed their feelings in the theme of wine and grapes. I am featured in a short clip of “Hunger” made by Cyril Duval aka Item Idem, an incredible conceptual artist and friend of mine.
I like the arts and fashion because I am always interested in creating something new. I am fascinated by competitive eating in that I can create training methods from scratch after many tries and errors and I can set a world record by challenging my limit; keeping it fresh all the time. I enjoy the creative aspect of competitive eating in addition to having fun from feeling the sense of playing sports.
Since I moved to New York City, I have challenged myself to be involved in whatever I can, because I do not want to limit my possibilities. I have walked in a fashion show during NY fashion week, taken part in supporting minority rights, and many other creative outlets. I eat as an athlete just as I love trying delicious foods and introducing superb restaurants in New York through a foodie app for people. All of this gave me a chance to broaden my horizons and introduce what I have through different mediums.
I now consider competitive eating to be a part of my lifestyle, rather than just a sport I do. That is something that has changed since when I first began. I think I can break my record for ten more years and enjoy continuing to create my own training methods. I would like you to have an interest in competitive eating and then lead you to other areas such as food culture.
– Do you feel any difference in audience and environment at contests between Japan and the USA?
Americans are more excited than Japanese while I am in eating contests. Japanese stare more in astonishment without as much emotion. I feel that contests are different when I compete in Japan and the USA.
– What do you think of Japan and Japanese as a Japanese professional competing outside of Japan? Is there any change in your way of looking at Japan before and after going abroad?
Living in New York has made me recognize more aspects of New York including bad ones, which I did not think about when I was in Japan. While in Japan, I was always thought about the good side. But living in New York puts me in a position to look at Japan and the USA without any bias feelings. I feel I now observe both Japan and the USA with more understanding. There are pros and cons in both countries.
When I was in Japan, I thought Japanese people were not playful and creative, which narrow many possibilities. On the other hand, New York is a diverse city and has a possibility of creating something big. But it means there is no moral in the city and you will lose control of yourself if you do not discipline yourself.
It was after I moved to New York when I have become more proud of Japanese culture. For example, Kaiseki, shojin cuisine that is an ancient Japanese cuisine developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries, is served in different dishes in colors and shapes that best match with foods. I appreciate that I was born in such a country that created such a way of thinking.
– Please let us know your future plans.
I would like to sell hot dogs in the USA because I am interested in connecting Japan and the USA by involving in food culture beyond competitive eating. It will be a challenge for me to see how Americans would react to a hot dog being debuted by a person born and raised in Japan. Since hot dogs are an American soul food it would be amazing if they enjoyed a brand coming from me!
Personally, I do not think Japan has a hot dog culture. There are no hot dog chains in Japan although we have hamburger chains. I would like to connect Japan and the USA through my hot dogs that I am plan to sell in the USA and establish a hot dog culture in Japan.
Takeru Kobayashi is a professional Japanese competitive eater living in New York. He was born in Nagano in Japan in 1978. He is 5.7 ft and weighs 128 lbs. Kobayashi loved sports, and became dedicated to running, hard-core weight training and at the same time monitoring and controlling his diet to support his bodybuilding when he was a teenager. Eating 50 hotdogs in just 12 minutes, Kobayashi broke the record with more than half of the time remaining at Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog-eating contest in 2001 when he first participated in it. He broke his own records three times and won the contests six consecutive times. Due to his achievements in the USA, competitive eating was considered a sport. Kobayashi is now regarded as one of the leaders in the 21st century sport. He has chosen to be in commercials with top athletes such as NIKE and featured special guest appearances at the opening ceremony of baseball games. Kobayashi is one of the most known and active Japanese in the world of sports. After moving to New York in 2010, he has been involved in many activities beyond competitive eating such as introducing food culture.