2008-01-04

Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold

Uncounted thousands of thirty-one-syllable poems document Japan's age-old love of the new year's arrival on the wings of spring. By early modern times, the new year was encrusted solid with traditions and customs, some with origins lost to prehistory and others based on puns still horrendous today. When the mustachioed, flapper-dressed, top-hatted upper class of the period decided to switch to the western calendar, they relocated the entire cultural construct to January 1st without disturbing it in the slightest. A triumph -- but a bittersweet one.

There is danger, you see, in the Japanese new year. There always has been. Since ancient times its trappings have harbored an amorphous killer which erupts from the shadows in a hail of pine needles to claim its victims -- and there are always victims, every January, without fail. That killer's name? Mochi.

At least four deaths were recorded through Wednesday in Tokyo from eating a traditional Japanese New Year's treat, sticky rice cakes called mochi, a news report said. ... [A]nother 10 people ... were taken to hospital ...

The elderly are usually most at risk, and authorities advise them to eat mochi in small pieces with a lot of liquids.

I have heard reliable reports of a final 2008 nationwide mochi death toll of 5 -- and that's not all:

In another instance of rice cakes proving potentially dangerous, police in Sendai said 2-inch nails were discovered Sunday inside rice cakes sold at a supermarket.

In Tokyo, the Fire Department is responsible for the never-ending battle against this delicious menace. Here is their page on the topic. Read it well. Barring complete societal collapse due to Peak Oil, the chances are good that one day, you too will be seventy. And if you come near Japan in late December, the mochi will be waiting for you.

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LarryW:

Kind of like how people die from Peanut Butter.
Also, it's kind of amusing that that mochi link talks about a report from Jiji news.


Charles:

I thought the annual mochi death toll was funny. Then my mom developed dysphagia (trouble swallowing, in this case, a symptom of ALS) and eventually died from choking on some sticky cake. Now I don't think it's so funny anymore.


Matt:

Sorry to hear that, Charles. If it helps any, what I find tragicomic is not the choking to death itself, but the fact that they do it every year, despite the news coverage from every previous year, warnings from the Fire Department, jokes about the danger dating back to Edo times and earlier, and easy ways to reduce (slice up the mochi smaller) or eliminate (not eat mochi) the danger.


Charles:

Well, I don't mean to rain on your parade, but I can still see the irony, if not the humor, since everyone knows the risks.

Now when I hear these mochi stories, I always think to the climactic scene in "I, Claudius." The notorious poisoner Livia offers Claudius a poison mushroom during a banquet. Claudius is the only person who truly knows Livia's evil poisoning methods, and he hesitates a moment before accepting and eating it. I wondered if the aging, infirm Claudius thought he'd lived too long and it was time to die, or whether he thought it might not be poison at all.

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