Once again, Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi has pulled off the dubious feat of winning the annual U.S. Independence Day hot-dog eating contest at New York’s Coney Island. Mr. Kobayashi took home his sixth straight Yellow Mustard Belt by downing 53 3/4 fat-, sodium- and nitrate-laden frankfurters in 12 minutes and broke his own record in the event by a quarter of a hot dog. It’s hard to come up with a recent news item that arouses a more contradictory tangle of feelings.
Think about it: Most of the stuff that happens around the planet from one day to the next prompts a straightforward response. Japan is booted from the World Cup: disappointment. Children are killed in a market bombing in Baghdad: distress. North Korea test-fires missiles: dread. The missiles plop into the sea: relief. Brangelina do whatever: boredom. The prime minister takes a trip to Graceland: bemusement. Beatle Paul McCartney turns 64: shock (where did the years go?). A cool, dry, sunshiny day dawns (what, you missed it?): irrational exuberance. We know where we stand on all these things and more.
But then along comes Mr. Kobayashi, flaunting his peculiar gift of being able to stuff himself with more unpalatable food, more quickly, than anyone else in the world, and we hardly know what to think first. So we think all of the following things at once:
1. Mr. Kobayashi is not Japanese at all, or even human; he’s an alien in the form of a Japanese. Did you know he once ate 8 kg of pan-seared cow brains in 15 minutes? It could be called inhuman to want to eat even one pan-seared cow brain in the era of mad cow disease, let alone 8 kg’s worth. And don’t go thinking he’s an animal, despite his behavior at the food trough. He’s not even in the same class. Three years ago he was outshone in an eating contest with a 494-kg Kodiak bear, who gobbled 50 bunless hot dogs in 2 minutes and 36 seconds to Mr. Kobayashi’s 31. (But how long can it be before some promoter thinks of matching him against a hog?)
2. He really is Japanese — a native of Nagano, reportedly — and on balance a credit to his country.
First of all, the man is in tremendous shape. It might be different if he were a 200-kg, sumo-size pudge-ball. But he’s a lean, muscular 72 kg with abs he could take to Hollywood. Throw in that mustard-yellow-dyed hair, and Mr. Kobayashi looked every bit as cool routing his rivals at Coney Island as the prime minister did swanning about at Graceland in Elvis’ sunglasses.
Second, a win is a win, and Mr. Kobayashi is at the very least a fabulously reliable competitor. It seems he was pushed to the brink in this year’s dog-a-thon by a 100-kg California student who set the pace for much of the, er, meal. That’s a big change from Mr. Kobayashi’s first victory, back in 2001, when he shattered the existing record by such a wide margin that organizers ran out of signs showing what number he was up to. And yet he hung in there — doggedly, one might say — for that sixth title. Japan needs more people like him, not fewer. Just wondering: At 28, is he too old for the 2010 World Cup team?
3. He really is Japanese and on balance a national embarrassment. Let’s be honest, if this is entertainment, it’s of the circus freak-show variety. Japan is known as the land of elegance and understatement, mystery and manners, Kabuki, classical music and cuisine as an art form. Certainly, it’s a long way from kaiseki ryori to the menu at Nathan’s Famous hot-dog stand, where Mr. Kobayashi does his thing every Fourth of July to the raucous delight of thousands.
So why would Japan, of all countries, pick as one of its cultural ambassadors a fellow with a superhuman capacity for devouring junk food? And then there is the ethical aspect of the whole sport, or spectacle, of competitive eating — the much-criticized glorification of gluttony in a world where millions go hungry every day.
4. On one level, that last criticism is unanswerable. But on another, as with everything else to do with Mr. Kobayashi, it’s more complicated. Not everything that happens in the world demands either complete seriousness or undivided attention. If it did, the sadness and violence and deprivation that fill the news every day would forbid all levity, all distractions — and what would happen to the World Cup then, or Elvis, or Mr. McCartney? True, watching people gorge themselves to the point of nausea for prize money may not be everyone’s idea of fun. But no one has said watching is mandatory.
Frankly, it appears that only one thing about Mr. Kobayashi is beyond dispute: As food for thought, he’s unbeatable.
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