Every country celebrates the holidays in their own way: Americans decorate Christmas trees, Germans drink Glühwein (mulled wine) and the Japanese make and consume rice cakes (mochi). Last year at the close of December, Japan’s largest organised crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi even had the local neighbours over for their annual rice-making event in Kobe– while the police watched to make sure there was no trouble. However, these glutinous sweet rice cakes turn out to be much more deadly than Japan’s gun-shy mafia. In order to avoid more people choking to death on mochi this year, Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency had issued a stern warning for the general public to chew over, urging caution in consumption of these holiday staples.
Mochi are a glutinous Japanese specialty, often turned into a dessert, made from pounded steamed rice that Japanese usually eat to celebrate the coming New Year and other festive occassions. The rice cakes are very chewy and sticky, like hot taffy; people can choke to death on them. In Tokyo alone, within the last five years, excluding this year, 542 people had to be given emergency treatment by the Tokyo Fire Department due to mochi related injuries. 35 were already ready dead by the time the ambulances arrived according to reports.
90% of the victims taken to the hospital were over 65.
The Consumer Affairs Agency took a proactive measure this week and called for the public to cut up mochi into small pieces and thoroughly chew them before swallowing. This should help prevent people from choking on them. The agency also warned the elderly that rice cakes harden quickly in the winter and that before quickly chewing on them, it would be wise to warm up by having a conversation, doing a little exercise, and possibly drinking soup or other beverages to moisten the throat before consumption.
The agency also urged family members to closely monitor children and elderly relatives who eat the cakes.
According to the agency, in January last year, a 91-year-old man was eating mochi with soup (o-zoni) in the evening, and after eating two pieces got them lodged in his throat and suffocated. Emergency workers who came to the scene were able to extract the food but the man never regained consciousness. This year the fatalities by the 3rd, in Tokyo alone, were at least two people. Over 20 people had been hospitalised by the 5th. It appears that despite proactive efforts to deal with the problem, the Japanese government once again this year may have bitten off more than they can chew.
The agency’s call to safety refers to past pamphlets with instructions on what do when members choke, such as putting pressure on the area above the belly button or pounding the area between the scapula. In the past it was believed that a vacuum cleaner was the best way to remove the substance but it is no longer recommended. (No, not kidding. It was actually recommended).
The pamphlets also explains the need for vigilance in catching the warning signs. When a person grasps their throat with their thumb and index finger, this is a gesture that indicates the person may be choking. In such a case, one should quickly call for an ambulance.
In case you were wondering, Japan’s Food Safety Commission lists rice-cakes as the most dangerous food related to choking deaths. Bread was number four. Japanese new year festivities officially end on January 16th, the day after January 15th, known 小正月(koshogatsu), the little New Year, in reference to the old lunar calendar. Until then be vigilant, cut up your rice cakes into small portions, and chew well before swelling. Also, if your girlfriend or significant other keeps urging you to eat mochi, they’re probably trying to kill you. (Just kidding. Maybe).
Please remember, even when the New Year ends, mochi don’t go away. They may even show up on your pizza. So do take care.