March 27th, 2011
On July 4th, 2010, world famous competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi, who had recently moved to Manhattan, spent the night in jail after answering the cheers of his fans. The young star was arrested for jumping on stage at the Coney Island hot dog eating competition – the same stage where he once broke world record s and turned an American icon, the hot dog, into the focus of an ESPN-covered sport. In his first exclusive in-depth interview about the arrest, the surprisingly ripped champion eater explores themes of Americana and shares with Justin Simon what he was thinking that day – and his uncertainty about what will happen this upcoming Fourth of July.
The Block: How do you like living in New York? Do you miss Japan at all?
Kobi: Every day is fun in New York. I’m so busy here that I don’t have much time to think about how much I miss Japan. I feel really free here. New York is filled with people from all different parts of the world, and they all have their own way of thinking, so I feel free to think and behave as I like. In Japan, you have to adapt your behaviour to what mainstream culture allows, but in New York, you have to be open to all other cultures. I think the sense of freedom I have in New York influences how I spend my time here.
The Block: Do you have any favourite places in New York?
Kobi: I really like the Chelsea Market. It’s close to my apartment and I go there a lot.
The Block: Do fans ever come up to you on the street in New York?
Kobi: Yes. People come up to me on the street and talk to me as if we’re old friends, even though we’ve never met! Once, a couple of people even yelled “Free Kobi” when they saw me. In Japan, fans either look at me shyly from a distance, or they get very close and tell me they’re huge fans. It is different how they express themselves. I think the way they respond to me shows a lot about their culture. It’s all good.
The Block: Are you studying English now?
Kobi: Yes, I’ve been going to an English school for about three months. I’ve also made some friends in the city who I hang out with. I’m not good with the language yet, but I feel like I try my best to communicate through gestures and movement, added to the new English I’ve learned.
The Block: What sort of work do you do other than eating competitions?
Kobi: I’ve appeared in commercials, given eating demonstrations, and guest lectures at universities. Just recently I was a runway model for a fashion show.
The Block: Were you nervous?
Kobi: Not really. I didn’t rehearse for it at all, so I wasn’t even aware what could go wrong. I just walked the way I always do!
The Block: May I ask about the incident at the hot dog contest last year?
The Block: Why did you attend if you weren’t going to participate?
Kobi: I went to show my support for the other contestants.
The Block: Did the fans know beforehand that you weren’t going to be participating in the contest?
Kobi: The news had reported that it was possible I wouldn’t be participating, but I think many people came hoping that I would. Also, many people just didn’t know anything about what was going on at all. I wasn’t even sure myself what would happen up until the very day. They wanted me in the contest under a contract with conditions that were impossible to sign, and I wanted to compete with more freedom. Finally, I was still not offered a contract that I felt allowed me to sign; therefore, I was not able to compete.
The Block: At one point did you get on stage?
Kobi: The contest had finished, but the fans started to chant, “Let him eat! Let him eat!” I got excited and ended up on stage. It just happened. The fans discovered me in the audience during the contest, and were of course confused about why I wasn’t on stage. All they probably felt or knew was that I wasn’t being allowed in the contest for some reason… so they started that chant.
The Block: When you got up on stage, were you intending to eat?
Kobi: I thought there could be a chance, with all the chanting going on, that someone would finally give in and let me. There was a group of security guards standing in front of the steps that led up to the stage, and when the crowd started chanting, “Let him eat!” the security guards realized who I was, and led me up to the stage. But the head of the organization told another group of security guards onstage that I couldn’t be up there and they grabbed me.
The Block: The police seemed a bit rough with you.
Kobi: Yeah, they were really violent. They surrounded me, and a policeman pulled me really hard from behind. I got injured and bruised.
The Block: And then you were taken to a police station, right? Did they explain why you were being taken?
Kobi: No, they didn’t tell me anything. I don’t think the policemen themselves even knew why they were taking me in. On the way to the station, some of the policemen asked me what I had done. First, they took me to the precinct nearest to Coney Island, but then they moved me to the big courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. I was arrested around 3 o’clock and I wasn’t released until the next morning. They put me in a cell with two or three other guys. Then as the night progressed, they moved me twice more to different cells. Prisoners were brought in and out all night long. There were a couple of scary-looking guys, but none of the prisoners bothered me. When the police threw a roll of toilet paper into the cell at one point, another prisoner taught me how to use it as a pillow!
The Block: Were you able to sleep at all?
Kobi: No, not at all. The cell was really dirty and uncomfortable. There weren’t any chairs, just a little part of the concrete wall that stuck out that we could sit on. The toilet was disgusting. It was filled up with garbage and didn’t flush.
The Block: Do you think you’ll participate in the hot dog eating contest again this summer?
Kobi: I’m not sure. Even if I were to win the competition, I don’t think I would feel good about participating in an event held by an organization that has such little respect for me. It wouldn’t be any fun. Doing an event like that isn’t just about winning for me. It’s also about the fans and how you entertain them in a healthy way. It is a really important part of my career as a competitive eater. I’ve won many competitions for years now, so just eating to win is not my main interest anymore. It’s about other things as well.
The Block: Have you considered changing the focus of your career a little?
Kobi: Yes. I’m considering many new projects. I would like to participate in other competitions. There are many things being discussed now. I give demonstrations, spend time with fans, make appearances in numerous events, lectures, TV shows, competitions, etc. If I had signed the contract they offered me last year, I wouldn’t have been able to use my eating abilities anywhere else, all year round. No other competitions, no television appearances, nothing. So I didn’t sign it. It was either compete in that one hot dog contest and do nothing else, or choose not to be in the hot dog contest and be free. I felt like I would have a much more gratifying life if I chose to be free. So now I really want to do all the things signing that contract would have prohibited me from doing. Ever since the news of my arrest, I receive invitations from all over the world to appear at various events. It has been very humbling and great fun. I don’t feel bad about what I did leading to my arrest. I also feel overwhelmed by all the support people have shown me since the arrest. Fans and friends have shown such amazing support; I am forever grateful. I am so thankful to them. As far as the arrest goes, there’s only one thing that’s left a bad taste in my mouth, and that is being treated with such disrespect by an organization I’ve worked so closely with for so many years.
The Block: I’m sure you would rather not have been arrested, but you did have quite a unique experience.
Kobi: Yes. Definitely something I would not have experienced in Japan!Tweet