The Japanese New Year’s treat that is killing elderly people

Please eat using the buddy system.
Please eat using the buddy system.
Image: Flickr user atmo/Wikimedia Commons
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2015 is just getting started, but Japan’s traditional New Year’s delicacy known as mochi has already killed at least four people and hospitalized another ten—despite annual warnings from health authorities that the gooey rice cakes should be cut into small pieces, and never eaten alone.

The death toll included a man in his 70s and two men and a women in their 80s, who all died after choking on mochi, according to the Kyodo news agency. Japan’s food safety commission found in 2010 that mochi, made from pounding glutinous rice into a sticky paste, was the food most commonly involved in choking incidents. More than 80% of victims were 65 or older.

The treat is a hugely popular one—every year Japanese consume an amazing 1kg (2.2lb) per person (paywall), mostly around the beginning of the year—and it is often served in hot broth as part of a dish called zoni. People also eat kagami mochi, a decoration that looks a bit like a snowman and is placed around the home according to Shinto traditions.

Japanese fire departments, which are usually the first responders for choking cases, have even suggested using vacuum cleaners to help elderly people choking on mochi, which inspired one medical device manufacturer to offer a suction nozzle attachment for overenthusiastic mochi eaters. To see what such an intervention might look like—along with just how gooey those zoni mochi can be—check out this scene from the classic Japanese ramen movie Tampopo (fast-forward to the 2:20 mark).