A grim New Year’s trend continued in Japan as four women choked to death on traditional rice cakes and 12 other people were hospitalized, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported. The women who died were all in their 80s, fire department officials said. Eleven of those hospitalized were also elderly and one person was under 40, the newspaper reported..
Choking on mochi — the sticky, sweet traditional delicacy served to celebrate the new year — is so common that the Tokyo Police Department has a website offering tips on how to help someone who has the food lodged in their throat.
Authorities annually warn people to cut the sticky rice cakes into smaller pieces to make them easier to chew, especially for the elderly and children. People are also advised to eat the treats slowly.
Despite public warnings, the treats made of pounded, steamed rice have caused suffocation deaths nearly every year, especially among elderly people. In 2015, nine people were believed to have died taking part in the annual culinary tradition.
Mochi is a staple of the Japanese New Year’s holiday menu. But the glutinous cakes, grilled or cooked in broth or with sweet beans, can easily get stuck in people’s throats, blocking breathing.
According to a 2020 letter in the medical journal Resuscitation, mochi accounts for up to 13.9% of foreign body airway obstruction (FBAO) cases in Japan. In Tokyo, 482 patients were hospitalized after chocking on the rice cakes over a span of five years.
In 2001, a woman saved her father’s life when she used a vacuum cleaner to pull mochi from the 70-year-old man’s throat.