Standing 173 centimeters in height and weighing 60 kilograms, Takeru Kobayashi looks no different from the average Japanese man, until he sits down to eat.
There, he has few equals at the dinner table, being recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s top competitive eater.
Kobayashi's records include downing 29 meatballs in 1 minute, 97 hamburgers in 8 minutes and other marks he established in speed-eating competitions of pizza, hot dogs, pasta and sponge cakes.
The 36-year-old native of Nagano rose to fame in the United States in 2001 when he won the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York's Coney Island to commemorate Independence Day.
Although he was competing in the event, organized annually by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, for the first time, he devoured 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, double the previous record. Kobayashi became a professional speed eater and successfully defended the champion’s title for six consecutive years.
“It took Americans by surprise to see a skinny Japanese beating giant Americans in an eating competition of hot dogs--America’s soul food--on Independence Day,” Kobayashi recalled during a recent interview in New York.
“Speed eaters compete as athletes under fair judges and rigid rules,” he said. “We try to push our physical limits, and how are we different from 100-meter sprinters and other athletes in that sense?”
Kobayashi entered the world of competitive eaters keeping in mind his father’s advice since he was a child that he must aspire to become No. 1 in any field of competition.
He first discovered his talent for speed eating when he was a junior at a university in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture. He entered an eating competition sponsored by a curry chain for the first time and consumed 5,100 grams of curry and rice, which is equivalent to 16 to 17 regular platefuls, within 20 minutes, establishing a new record.
Jumping on the bandwagon of the boom of TV variety programs featuring eating contests, he became a celebrity competitive eater in Japan, earning about 30 million yen ($246,915) in income in the peak year of 2001.
But the boom rapidly waned after a junior high school student accidentally died in 2002 after trying to eat fast like the top competitive eaters. The speed-eating programs also faced increasing criticism that they were merely wasting food, and TV broadcasters stopped airing speed-eating contests.
“I personally believed that we weren’t just wasting food--what I eat at the competition would become my flesh and blood,” Kobayashi said.
In the United States, however, he found that speed-eating competitions are broadcast on sports channels and competitive eaters are widely respected like athletes. After winning recognition as a top speed eater, he appeared on TV commercials for sports apparel brand Nike, MasterCard and a beer company. He has been granted an O-1 visa by the U.S. government, which is issued to talented artists and athletes.
He moved his base of operations to New York in 2010, but an unexpected setback hit Kobayashi once again. On July 4 that year, he was arrested on suspicion of trespassing and obstructing police officers when he attempted to crash the stage of the Nathan's hot dog competition.
The surprising arrest, which eventually led to him being placed on probation for six months, came after Kobayashi feuded with the competitive eating federation.
The federation had demanded that he sign an exclusive contract that prohibited him from appearing in competitions organized by other organizations. Kobayashi declined, as it could limit his opportunities to appear in commercials.
The federation then banned his entry into the Nathan's hot dog eating contest, even though he said he would forgo his participation fee, which was several millions of yen.
Kobayashi showed up at the competition venue any way and tried to crash the stage as the crowd chanted his name. At that moment he was arrested.
“It was, of course, the first time that I was kept in a police cell, but I could not sign a contract that seemed unfair to me,” he recalled. Since then he has never appeared again in the competition that helped propel him to stardom in the United States.
The following year, he appeared in a special hot dog eating performance on July 4, apart from the Nathan's hot dog competition, as to determine the true champion. Kobayashi downed 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes, while the winner of the Nathan's competition, which was aired live on TV, ate 62.
This demonstration increased offers for Kobayashi to compete in other speed-eating competitions.
People who know Kobayashi well praise his stoicism to keep winning.
“Honestly speaking, both fencing and speed-eating are minor sports, compared with baseball or soccer,” said Yuki Ota, 29, an Olympic silver medalist fencer and a close friend of Kobayashi's. “But however minor the sport is, it still takes a lot of effort to become the world’s top player.”
To remain a highly competitive speed eater, Kobayashi trains in his own style. For three months before a competition, he drinks huge quantities of water to stretch his stomach. He also runs about 5 kilometers four times a week to keep himself in tiptop shape.
Hideyuki Kurita, a 45-year-old trainer at the Japan Sport Council, said Kobayashi’s muscular condition is comparable with that of Olympic athletes.
“I would like to compete for another 10 years in speed-eating,” Kobayashi said. “As long as there are people who get excited by my performance and understand my passion, I am proud of what I do.”