Mist rises from the small pond, which is surrounded by pagodas and small rooms with paper walls. In the distance, a koto plays a sad melody, as a few white egrets rise into the air. Koi turn and swim through the stream that passes under a small bridge, and the Master waits. He sits, cross-legged, on the tatami in his chamber. He awaits the young student, the boy whom he will train for many years, through hardship, suffering, and effort, to become the next champion of…competitive eating. Wait, what?
That’s right, competitive eating in the land of the rising sun is taken very seriously, with the determination, sense of pride, and constant training and practice common to many aspects of Japanese culture. After all, the Japanese word for it translates to food fighting, so you know it is not viewed as merely a joke. Just like morbidly-obese Sumo wrestlers are deadly-serious about their sport, so are Japanese competitive eaters.
Competitive eating is the sport of eating more food than anyone else, in a timed, controlled environment. Competitive eating has been around for a long time: I have no doubt that cavemen challenged one another to buffalo-eating contests. In more recent times in the US, eating contests (especially those of pie-eating) were quite popular at school events and state fairs. In 1972, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs restaurant in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York began holding hotdog-eating contests to promote their business. This caught on and became popular with New Yorkers and the press. Today, that hotdog contest has matured into the International Federation Of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the main organization that accredits and organizes recognized eating competitions around the world.
For a genetically-small people, the Japanese tend to dominate most competitive eating overall (though the current champion, Joey Chestnut, is an American). Why is this? Most Japanese gurgitators (the preferred word for eating competitors) are small, thin, and muscular, not the obese giants who you would expect to dominate the sport. Some of the most famous Japanese gurgitators are Takeru Kobayashi, Takako Akasaka, Arai Fujita, Misao Fujita, and Gal Sone. So how do these small, thin eaters do it? One word: training.
Eating unnaturally-large amounts of food requires training and tricking the body, and keeping in top physical shape. Although a few competitive eaters are obese, the best competitors are almost always thin and relatively small. Eating more than the stomach is supposed to hold is a matter of careful, mind-over-matter practice. The first skill is to learn to expand the esophageal tract — the tube that food slides down into the stomach. This tract has muscles that want to contract, to prevent us from eating too much at once. Competitive eaters learn to relax those muscles. Second, they must learn to ignore the nausea, the gag reflex, the pain, and the regurgitating response that accompany overeating. Finally, they must actually physically-expand their stomachs.
In order to accomplish these feats, they begin by drinking large amounts of water at a time. This actually stretches the esophageal and stomach muscles and tissues to an abnormally-large size. So while Takeru Kobayashi, for example, looks small on the outside, his stomach is actually larger than most people’s. Once they have mastered water, they begin to eat very large quantities of low-calorie, watery foods, such as cabbage. This trains their digestive tracts to handle the actual processing of solid food in big amounts. And once this is accomplished, they do some training with real, solid food, like meat.
Japanese competitive eaters are also in great physical shape otherwise. They run, lift weights, and participate in cardiovascular exercise. This seems to be one of the secrets to their success: if their bodies are in top shape otherwise, then they can handle the stresses of overeating. Their training also involves actual ingestion techniques. For example, one strategy developed by Kobayashi is to drink a little water with the hot dog buns to make them smaller in mass. In addition, they learn to push food as far down the throat as possible before chewing. Again, this requires an artificial stifling of the natural gag reflex. Then, it is a matter of the mind and of the will. They simply learn, through practice, to ignore the body’s warning signs that they should stop eating. They simply eat through the wall, a term that competitive eater (and TV actor) Adam Richman coined for the point at which the body tries to prevent you from eating more.
While many doctors believe that successful competitive eaters are genetically-predisposed to eating this much, Japanese champions will tell you that it is a matter of training, perseverance and honor. They take it seriously, training every day, and viewing their eating as their career, their sport, their struggle, and their expertise. In the same way that Japanese sushi chefs look at their jobs as very serious matters of personal pride and honor, so do competitive eaters. And perhaps that — the power of the will — is the real secret to their success.