In Japan, delicious mochi are a New Year tradition – as are warnings about how deadly they are

Julian Ryall

This New Year, Japanese authorities have warned revellers not to bite off more than they can chew when consuming traditional mochi rice cakes – and the warning has become as much of an annual tradition as the delicacy.

The National Police Agency and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency have teamed up for a promotional blitz on the dangers associated with the snack. An essential part of the menu over the holidays, mochi are made of pounded rice. They can be grilled, cooked in a broth with vegetables, or filled with sweet beans.

However when they are served, there is a danger that anyone who bites off too large a piece and fails to chew it sufficiently will find it lodged in their throat.

The appeal for people to be careful when they eat mochi is an annual one – but is not always closely heeded.

Every year, the Japanese media keeps a close watch on the death toll from mochi, with two deaths reported last year. The authorities will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the first few days of 2015, when no fewer than 18 people were admitted to hospitals in Tokyo alone and three died.

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Across the country that year, nine people died, 128 were hospitalised and 18 people were reported to be in a “serious” condition after eating mochi.

One of the victims was an 80-year-old man in Nagasaki Prefecture who had eaten a mochi that had been given out for free at his local shrine.

The authorities are instructing people to cut their mochi into small pieces and to eat with great care, chewing thoroughly and slowly before attempting to swallow. They also suggest that anyone who wants to eat mochi not do it alone in case they get into difficulties.

Another tactic many families employ is to make sure that a vacuum cleaner is close at hand so it can be placed in the mouth of anyone who is choking to suck out the offending morsel. If a vacuum cleaner is not available, the authorities counsel a vigorous slap on the back to dislodge the glutinous delicacy.

The emergency services are in particular cautioning great care among the very young and the elderly, with old people accounting for around 80 per cent of the victims each year.

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