No. 1 — from violin to hot dogs

Around the world, Japanese have been competing and winning prize after prize. From the world of classical music to intense, if lighthearted, forms of competition, Japan’s new international face is composed in part of the many globe-trotting, contest contenders. Clearly, the new generation of Japanese is not afraid of a challenge, of many different kinds, and is willing to travel abroad to seek fame, if not exactly fortune.

The most prestigious of Japan’s recent international competitors is Ms. Mayuko Kamio. This year, at age 21, she won the violin category of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, held only once every four years. Having had difficulties in selling tickets before the results were announced, her concerts now are sold out, and are likely to be for some time. In Japan, you cannot find better advertising than a “No. 1″ from a foreign contest.

Ms. Kamio’s success was not the first time a Japanese won the contest, nor is she the youngest; but her success speaks volumes about the respect accorded to classical music here, and marks the beginning of a noteworthy career. Though Europe may still be the center of classical music, her victory indicates how internationalized the classical music world has become, stretching definitively to include Japan.

Yet, other fields, too, have propelled Japanese from Narita airport to contests far and wide. Ms. Kamio’s achievement stands out for its talent, but other, more obscure, contests reveal another side of the new generation abroad. Most famously, of course, is Mr. Takeru Kobayashi, known as “The Tsunami” for his ability to engulf hot dogs. For six solid years in a row, Mr. Kobayashi ate the most hot dogs at the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.

Chomping down hot dogs cannot really compare to the skill and talent of playing Tchaikovsky, and is clearly not a long-term career choice, but there are few in Japan who did not feel a twinge of disappointment when reading that Joey “Jaws” Chestnut beat Mr. Kobayashi at this year’s contest. National pride could perhaps never be firmly based on “competitive eating,” but there are much worse sources of pride, after all.

In the world of not-quite-real musical talent, Mr. Yosuke Ochi has been judged first at the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, for the past two years. For acting out the fantasy of playing an invisible guitar, Mr. Ochi could not be considered your typical Japanese, yet breaking with typicality is part of the appeal, and surely part of the pleasure. As Mr. Ochi out-”played” air guitarists from around the world, he may not have been doing it for national glory, but just for himself. Though eccentric, such contests certainly do no harm. His individual efforts have won Mr. Ochi two real guitars, the ironic prize for first. He’ll need them; even air guitarists have to stay in practice.

Yo-yoing may seem equally absurd, yet here again the participants reveal another side of the competitive Japanese spirit. The results of 2007′s World Yo-Yo Contest held in Orlando, Florida, include Mr. Hiroyuki Suzuki with a respectable second place, and Mr. Hitoshi Ono in fifth. You never see anyone yo-yoing on the streets of Tokyo, yet five of the top 20 finalists in the contest were Japanese. The World Yo-Yo Contest Web site posts plenty of video clips in evidence of Japan’s yo-yoing supremacy in the world.

And speaking of video clips, Japanese have also won the Rube Goldberg Contest, a contest decided purely through video and voting on the Internet. Do a quick Web search for “Japanese Rube Goldberg Contest” and the video that pops up will amaze even the most serious-minded. The contest involves the most elaborate construction of interlocking “machines” to perform a simple everyday task. The entries can be taken as a parody of bureaucracy or a merger of engineering with comedy, but for sheer unpredictability and delightful absurdity, Japan won this year hands down. Add in the 11 Japanese couples in this year’s International Tango Championship in Buenos Aires and it seems that music, dance, sports, humor and odd skills may soon become Japan’s major exports!

This dedication to the offbeat may be part of the face of new Japan. Past successes, like Ms. Kamio’s, have been more serious and respectable, with Japanese athletes in American baseball and European soccer leagues helping connect viewers to the world outside Japan. It is refreshing, as well as amusing, to find so many Japanese willing to take the plunge overseas and step out on world stages. The contests seem to have awakened a different sense of where Japan might fit in the world.

The mix of craft with carefree fun may be one of the most significant shifts in Japanese culture since the “economic miracle.” This outbreak of participation shows a new side of Japanese culture, one capable of fierce competition, but with humor and self-awareness. No matter what, the contests are cultural ones that help promote cooperation, peace, understanding and a good time. Keep an eye out; the contest year is not over yet!