So Takei (hereafter Takei) is a former Japanese athletics and decathlon champion well known for his "How to KO Animals" series on TV. It's safe to say he's no stranger to rising above adversity. He overcame his impoverished background by managing to shine in the incredibly competitive world of athletics. However, despite his early success, he found himself fading into obscurity until he got his big break at the age of 39 as the "King of Beasts".
Throughout these ups and downs, one of the biggest influences in his life has been none other than Dragon Ball. According to Takei, he came to identify with Dragon Ball characters as they endured grueling training and faced off against powerful enemies.
Takei explains, "I'm no Saiyan, I'm just a regular guy. But I want to continue having the same "never-give-up" attitude towards getting stronger that Goku has." As he told us about how Goku taught him how to overcome adversity, he ended up sharing a more down to earth and vulnerable side of himself that runs counter to his televised persona as the "King of Beasts".
・Goku Was My Training Partner in Elementary School
・ How Meeting Koji Murobushi Was as Scary as Facing Broly
・ How I Needed to Channel Mr. Satan to Get My Break in Showbiz
・ I Really Like Mr. Popo. Why? Because He's a Lot Like a Certain Someone I Know
・ There's Only One Way to Beat Goku. And That Is...
—The Dragon Ball manga started running when you were in fifth grade. Did you read it as it was coming out?
Takei: I started from the very first chapter. I'll never forget thinking to myself, "Wow! What kind of world is this?!" when I saw Goku with his tail running around the forest for the first time, and found myself wanting to have a childhood like that myself.
Around the time I started reading Dragon Ball, I was putting everything I had into training to be the best athlete in all of Japan. So, seeing little Goku catch such a gargantuan fish made me super excited, but I was also more than a little jealous of his physical abilities.
A little later in the story, we're introduced to Kamesennin and Krillin, and then that's when Krillin and Goku start training by running around with heavy turtle shells on their backs. I wanted to incorporate something similar into my own training, so I crammed as many things as I could into my backpack and carried it as I ran to school in the morning.
My family didn't have much money back then, so I didn't have a fancy backpack when I was a kid. That made carrying all that heavy stuff even harder on my back.
—There's a lot of talk in the media about how your family faced a lot of financial hardships while you were growing up.
Takei: My father wasn't around much even after the divorce and I've lived in places that didn't have any electricity, gas, or running water. In many ways, I feel like my childhood was a lot like Goku and Krillin's.
After training with Kamesennin, we're introduced to a lot of different locations that basically act as training grounds, such as Karin Tower, the Room of Spirit and Time, and so on. Once the characters finish training at one of those places, they face down an unbelievably powerful threat and come out on top. I've gone through a lot of different types of training throughout my life, so I really feel like I grew up alongside the characters in Dragon Ball.
—So Goku and Krillin were like real friends to you.
Takei: Definitely. They were like my training partners. Or rather, they were my training partners and my teachers at the same time. That's why to me, Dragon Ball is fact, not fiction.
—Your journey to becoming an athlete began when you started track and field during university. Did you draw any inspiration from Dragon Ball at that time as well?
Takei: Oh, a whole bunch. Dragon Ball always popped into my mind. I constantly lamented about the fact that I couldn't use the Kaioken (laughs). I wished I could yell out, "Kaioken x2!!!" and finish the 100m dash in five seconds. And I would've given anything for a Senzu Bean when I was exhausted from training.
But the biggest influence was how it gave me a never-give-up, keep on fighting attitude.
Dragon Ball gave me the energy to master new abilities to overcome different situations, even when I faced super strong opponents that made me think, "How are you this strong?!"
—There are a lot of people in the athletic world with seemingly superhuman abilities. Did you ever find yourself overpowered by someone to the point that you felt like giving up?
Takei: The first time I met Nobuharu Asahara (400m relay silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics), I was shocked. Six months after I first started running track at university, I was chosen to compete in the 200m race at the National Sports Festival of Japan, and Asahara was chosen to compete in the 100m dash.
All of a sudden, he blasted past everyone and set a new national record of 10.19 seconds. And I was just left thinking, "Is this guy a Super Saiyan?!" I had just started running track, and it was like I was just about to start climbing Karin Tower, while there's this other guy bathed in a golden aura. I felt like there was no way I could reach that level.
But he and I got to talking and when we were having dinner, I realized he was just a regular guy like me and the reason he was so good was because he did a ridiculous amount of training. I thought about what I should do and decided I should train to compete in a decathlon. If the way I had been training up to that point wasn’t enough to beat him, then I'd just have to master some new ability to win. I'd master how to run, jump, throw, or whatever I needed to in order to claim victory.
—That's exactly the same approach Goku takes when he needs to surpass an enemy.
Takei: It's just like when I met Koji Murobushi (men's hammer throw gold medalist at the Athens Olympics). He was so unbelievably ripped and terrifying. I felt like I had just met Broly. With just a quick glance, I knew that this guy was born with some sort of innate talent I could never beat.
But meeting someone that powerful is exactly the kind of encouragement you need in life. There've been times where I've wanted to throw in the towel and just live a quiet, peaceful life, but finding someone that makes me think, "Man, you're strong!" makes me want to fight that much harder. I think that's the mentality that led me to become the Japanese decathlon champion.
—You got your big break in show business with your "How to KO Animals" series, but before that you remained relatively unknown for a long period of time.
Takei: In order to get my foot in the door, the first thing I wanted to do was figure out how to banter like a performer. That's why I joined Keiichi Yamamoto of Gokuraku Tombo* fame's amateur baseball team, "Team Kami-sama". I eventually started going out to grab food with Yamamoto and other celebrity colleagues, but I was definitely in the bottom rung. Any time I was walking with super-famous stars like Yamamoto or Atsushi Tamra from LONDONBOOTS1gou2gou**, everyone who crossed our path would immediately look at them and smile.
*Name of a former Japanese comedy duo consisting of Keiichi Yamamoto and Koji Kato. The name translates to "Heavenly Dragonfly".
**A Japanese comedy duo consisting of Atsushi Tamra and Ryo Tamra. The two are not related.
Seeing how beloved they were by so many people absolutely floored me. They were like magicians with some sort of incredible power, and I wanted that power too.
Of course, at the time, no one on the street would look at me twice. That's how it was for years on end. Sometimes Yamamoto would tell people I was the former Japanese track and field champion when he introduced me to people, but that never really garnered much of a reaction. It became all too clear to me that being the best at a sport in Japan and capturing the hearts of people were two completely different things entirely.
It's the same with Dragon Ball when you think about it. No matter how strong Goku was, if a world-famous celebrity like Mr. Satan hadn't been around, he never would have been able to gather the energy he needed for the Genki-dama.
—You're talking about the scene where he stepped in and told the people of Earth to lend their energy, which allowed Goku to create the huge Genki-dama that finally defeated Majin Buu once and for all
Takei: Sometimes it takes more than strength to win in this world. That's where fame comes in. I created the "How to KO Animals" series for just that reason. Before that, I just tried to improve myself and become stronger, but then I started to think about how I could make people smile and win their affection.
Eventually I decided to create a persona for myself where I'd boast about being able to defeat any animal in the world. In other words, my "King of Beasts" persona is basically my own version of Mr. Satan. In reality, I've never beaten an animal in a fight, but I decided to reinvent myself into someone who seemed like they could (laughs). Honestly, the fact that it's a joke doesn't really matter. What actually matters to me is doing something that helps people to stay positive and excited for the future. That's yet another of the many lessons Dragon Ball has taught me.
—I have to ask, do you have a favorite Dragon Ball character?
Takei: It's hard to choose just one... But if I had to choose, I'd say Mr. Popo.
—What is it about him that you like?
Takei: Well...he's a little like Yamamoto, actually.
He's cute, beloved, and comes across like the kind of person who can see through anything. Also, he suddenly appeared before me and gave me a place to sharpen my skills so I could get my start in show business. It's just like how Mr. Popo appeared before Goku at Kami's Palace and gave him the opportunity to hone himself into an even better warrior.
—Yamamoto is really like Kami to you, isn't he?
Takei: I was pretty down in the dumps when I was about 30 years old. Ichiro, Hiroyasu Shimizu, Daisuke Miura and the like were all tremendously successful athletes who were the same age as me, but it was like I was living in their shadows. I felt like I had been completely forgotten by society and I had no future. I was full of worry and self-doubt.
Suddenly, Yamamoto took me under his wing like Mr. Popo. He'd say things like, "We'll work 'til we win!" and "Things'll work out," which were basically the mottos of his baseball team. Whenever I'd get flustered or depressed, he'd say to me, "We'll work 'til we win!" and that always gave me the encouragement I needed. It made me never want to give up.
It wasn't just Yamamoto either. There were a lot of celebrities like Hidetsugu Shibata from untouchable*** who did a lot to help me get my foot in the door. The way we'd go back and forth, poking fun at each other and whatnot was a lot like the training Goku did with Mr. Popo. As a result, I figured out how to banter, quip, and trade barbs like other people in showbiz.
***A Japanese comedy duo featuring Shibata and Hironari Yamazaki.
I've had a lot of people in my life who were like my teachers. Just like Goku has Popo, Karin, King Kai, and other people who gave him places to train, I've had a lot of people help me get to where I am, and I'll always be grateful to them.
—Judging from our conversation today, it seems like your life mirrors the story of Dragon Ball in a lot of ways.
Takei: I think that's because I've always tried to live my life even bigger than a manga (laughs). I still want to be a hero, and I think being a hero is all about your mindset; namely, never allowing yourself to call it quits after a setback.
—"Work 'til you win," in other words.
Takei: I think people who find themselves in a tight spot but stick it out and keep going will gain the ability to overcome adversity. That's Goku in a nutshell. Even after he became a Super Saiyan, powerful enemies kept showing up and he had to go through a lot in order to overcome them.
There are people out there who think of me as some kind of superhuman, but that's not true at all. I'm no Super Saiyan, or Android. I'm just a regular guy who got to where he is by overcoming a lot of adversity.
The fact I'm in show business means that just about anybody can come out on top of any situation, so long as they never let go of that hero's mentality. So, I want anyone reading this to have that same mindset, even to just a small degree, and spend 1 minute or even just 10 seconds a day fighting against whatever adversity they're facing.
—Thank you for those words of encouragement. I'd like to ask one more question before we finish: Which Dragon Ball character would you like to fight?
Takei: Oh, it's gotta be Goku.
—How would you go about beating him?
Takei: By working even harder than him.
—Wow, what an answer!
Takei: Goku is a hard worker. Even as he grows older and becomes a father, and later a grandfather, he's still the strongest person out there. So, the only way to beat someone like that is to work even harder than them.
—I feel like you've shown us a more vulnerable side of yourself today. I can't thank you enough for your time!
So Takei: Born in 1973. From Tokyo. Former Japanese athletics and decathlon champion. Currently works as an entertainer on a wide range of platforms. Competed in the 2015 and 2018 World Masters Athletics Championships, where he won gold medals in the M40 Class (for athletes aged 40-44) and M45 Class (for athletes aged 45-49) for the 4 × 100 meters relay.
Interviewer/writer: Ryuta Shimabukuro
Photography: Nanami Miyamoto
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