Inside Tokyo’s luxury hotels the champagne bottles are empty and the canapés are gone. End-of-year parties have come to an end, and a whole new year has officially started.
New Year’s Day is a very important national holiday in Japan. It’s a day to relax and enjoy with one’s family, and people likely already prepared what they’ll do on that day.
Depending on the family or individual, traditions will kick in early in the morning thanks to some tasty osechi or a visit to a local shrine. Others will wake up even earlier, taking the first trains to visit some family members or to go hiking.
It is indeed difficult to think that the number of people who need to be hospitalized goes up on a day like this. After all, the drinking is left for the 31st. That’s when many countries around the world see car accidents and when firefighters have to be dispatched left and right; but in Japan, hospitalization occur the day after, when people are sober and having fun with their relatives. So what could possibly be going on on New Year’s Day?
As it turns out, it’s all because of one of Japan’s most famous things: mochi
During New Year’s Day, people tend to eat ozoni. Ozoni (or just zoni, since the “o” is honorific) is a soup containing mochi. The mochi used for ozoni is very soft, big, and chewy, meaning that some people, the elderly in particular, can have difficulties when eating it.
As a result, the number of incidents associated with eating mochi tends to go up during New Year’s Day. These numbers vary each year, in the festivities of 2018, for example, dozens of people required hospitalizations and two people died due to choking. 2015, however, has been one of the most horrifying New Year’s Days on record since nine people lost their lives because of mochi. Those who end up in hospitals after choking on mochi tend to be 50 years old and older, meaning that one has to truly keep an eye on their elderly relatives during New Year’s Day.
Choking on mochi is in fact so common that it’s reported that more people die each year because of it than from eating the infamous fugu.
That’s correct. Even though fugu is famous around the world because of how incredibly dangerous it can be since blowfish or pufferfish is lethal if not prepared correctly, the simple and seemingly harmless rice cake known as mochi is the food that causes most trouble across the Japanese archipelago.
The dangers of mochi are well-known not only in Japan. Countries that sell rice cakes will often have warnings as well reminding people that, if now chewed properly, one could easily choke while enjoying their rice cakes.
That’s why, amidst the New Year celebrations, it’s important to remind oneself of what can happen when eating ozoni: eat in small bites, and don’t swallow pieces that might be too big for you.
Warning people and reminded them of the hazards behind eating mochi might seem pointless to some, but they are necessary. After all, people can forget that something as simple and common as Japanese rice cake could result in the deaths of various people each year. If you happen to visit or reside in Japan, it might be good to remind yourself and others to chew slowly and carefully before trying some mochi.
Chew, chew, chew, and chew, making sure that the piece you are about to swallow can actually pass down your throat. And remember, reminding yourself and other about the dangers of mochi is not as embarrassing as it may seem. This food DOES cause many hospitalizations.