CLICK ON REUTERS FOR THEIR WEB SITE                      July 04, 2002

By Akiko Mori

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Japan's "prince" of gluttony defended his title at New York's annual hot dog eating contest on Thursday, breaking his own record by half a bun to swallow an astounding 50-1/2 hot dogs.

Called "The Prince" at home because of his film star looks, Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi amazed onlookers outside Nathan's hot dog restaurant on Coney Island as bits of his last bun oozed out of his nose as he approached the competition's 12-minute limit.

"The heat was definitely challenging," said Kobayashi, 24, sweating in temperatures above 90 F as he lifted the coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt. "But I can eat more."

Contestants from Japan have beaten American challengers twice their size at this annual Independence Day event in five out of the last six years. The Japanese love of eating contests and their superior munching technique have allowed them to triumph despite the Americans' greater bulk. Kobayashi set a new standard for power eating last year when he doubled the world record to 50 hot dogs.

This year he took turns munching two wieners and two buns at a time and although bits of bun came out of his nose, he did not break the rules by allowing anything to come out of his mouth.

"It did not come out of my mouth, I was safe," he said coolly, but added he was not sure whether he would come to next year's event. "If I come, I want to eat 60 next year," said Kobayashi, who weighed in at just 132 pounds before the start of Nathan's 87th annual hot dog contest.

Second place went to American challenger Eric "Badlands" Booker, a train conductor from Long Island, who set a new personal best at 26-plus hot dogs. "I am ecstatic," the 410- pound wonder said.

Eating contests were popular on Japanese television until the death of a 14-year-old schoolboy, who had been mimicking speed-eating champions during his lunch hour.  "Kids should be warned of the consequences, but they have to learn how to take risks too," said Kobayashi.

"He's like a rock star!" said an onlooker from New York,

pointing to a swarm of Japanese girls patiently waiting for his autograph.