As the nation holds its breath for 20-year-old Sorn Seavmey’s chance at the taekwondo podium on Saturday, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon had a chat with a fellow team member nearly twice her age: Neko “The Cat” Hiroshi, a Japanese comedian who gained Cambodian citizenship in 2011. Although he was unable to compete at the London games due to a technicality, he will represent the Kingdom at the final event of the 2016 summer games: Sunday’s men’s marathon
Neko-san, you are a 39-year-old Japanese comedian whose real name is Kuniaki Takizaki. Do you wish to add anything to that introduction?
I’m 147 centimetres tall and have a small build, but I perform big gag comedies. Nowadays, I use my own experiences and do comedy about running marathons and Cambodia.
The marathon is on Sunday. How are you spending your time in the days before then?
I usually relax. I also carbo-load for three days before the race, eating a lot more carbs than usual and spending it at the race.
How is your relationship with the rest of the Cambodian team – do you hang out with them even though you don’t speak Khmer?
We’re athletes, so we don’t go out to drink, but we do practise together, and afterwards we rest together and go eat meals together. I also learn Khmer from them, and I also teach them Japanese. It’s how we try to communicate with one another.
What is the funniest joke you’ve heard in Rio?
It’s not really a joke, but it’s a trendy thing for athletes to exchange their flag pins. We say “Hey! Pin!” as something like a funny catchphrase when we exchange.
And how do your former countrymen see your choice to run for Cambodia? What have people said to you that is most surprising?
I did get criticised four years ago, but now that I’ve continued [to run for Cambodia] for four years, and now that Cambodian athletes understand and acknowledge me, people cheer me on. There are some people who have supported me for all four years and they still do. I can’t thank them enough.
I didn’t get any criticisms from the Cambodian [marathon] athletes. We compete in the same sport, practise together and we race together and are rivals, but they are also my friends. They never criticised me, not in the past nor now and, when they found out that I was chosen for Olympics, they congratulated me. They know we compete and it’s only a matter of winning or losing, and they know well that I practise, so they do not criticise me.
As for Japan, four years ago for the Olympics, I did get some criticisms; things like, ‘Why are you changing your citizenship for the Olympics?’, ‘What do you think you are doing?’, ‘Have you tried to put yourself in the shoes of these Cambodian athletes and tried to think about how they feel?’ But I continued to work hard for four years and kept my status as the top runner [in Cambodia], so this time around, there weren’t criticisms from Japan. I’m really glad I didn’t give up and continued to prastice for the last four years!
The Japan Times recently reported that, when asked whether you would consider regaining Japanese citizenship, you said a firm ‘no’. Do you wish to elaborate on that?
Because I’m Cambodian! I met a lot of friends and athletes that I would not have met if I didn’t become a Cambodian citizen, so I’m glad I became one. Also, since I am a comedian in Japan, I can just work as a foreign comedian when I am there.
What is your objective for Sunday’s run and your Olympic participation? Are you going for gold?
I’m running because I love marathons. My time isn’t good enough for a medal, but it would make me happy if other people felt their spirits lifted when they see me work hard. I am a comedian, but I will take running [the marathon] seriously. Also, I will run and work hard so that I can give a cat’s return [a Japanese idiom that means ‘to repay my thanks’] to Cambodia, which has chosen me as one of its own. So if you can, please cheer on Kuniaki Takizaki on the day of the Olympics. I will run full tilt like a cat!