Seventeen Japanese killed by devil's tongue

Published: 12th February 2009
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In September 2008, Japan was shocked by the death of a 1-year-old boy who choked to death on a piece of jelly made from devil's tongue. In Latin, devil's tongue is called Glucomannan. Other names are snake palm, konjac mannan, konjac, elephant yam, voodoo lily, konjaku, and konnyaku, the last name being the Japanese name.

This was the 17th death from devil's tongue since 1995, starting the frequently seen pattern of evasion, avoidance, denial, or protest followed by surrender. We most often see this pattern with politicians caught in the act or who spoke without thinking. Tourism and transport minister Nariaki Nakayama recently provided yet another example when he spoke with reporters in September 2008, stating that Japanese people were "ethnically homogenous" and "definitely... do not like or desire foreigners." He resigned shortly after.

After the Japanese boy choked to death, the pattern continued. The Japanese government announced the 17 fatalities, primarily those of the very young and the old, met with MannanLife, and requested a product recall. MannanLife is one of the largest companies producing the jelly. The company said they would improve the warnings, which then said that the product is not appropriate for the very young and the old. Slightly over one week later MannanLife halted production and shipment.

Devil's tongue jelly, known as konjac candy and konjac fruit jelly, has also caused fatalities in North America and Europe, causing it to be banned. Konjac jelly, unlike regular jelly, does not melt naturally in the mouth. Chewing is necessary to break the jelly down, making bite sized products dangerous when they were swallowed whole. Since then, some devil's tongue jelly products on the market have been increased in size. They can no longer be swallowed in one piece and have appropriate warning labels.

Konnyaku is a traditional Japanese food that presents no danger in most of its forms, including the grayish large blocks found in oden and the grayish noodles found in oden, sukiyaki, and gyudon (beef bowl). Konnyaku is primarily water and glucomannan, which is fiber, containing almost no calories, making it popular with both people interested in health and in dieting.

Konnyaku comes from the konjac plant which grows in Japan, Korea, and China. Sometimes referred to as a potato, yam, or tuber, konjac actually grows in corms. A corm is simply a short thick solid stem underground that stores food. Konjac is also used by vegans as a substitute for gelatin.

Devil's tongue is not the only fatal food in Japan. According to data from the health ministry, 4407 people died from choking on food in Japan in 2006. Devil's tongue did not even make the top four. Mochi, which is pounded rice, was number one, and was followed by rice, bread and rice porridge. Approximately 85% of those who died were over 65. While the media rarely present rice, bread and rice porridge as life-threatening foods, the media does present mochi deaths, especially at New Year's, when many of the mochi deaths occur.

Unlike devil's tongue jelly, no steps have been taken to stop mochi consumption. Americans, Europeans, and Japanese all expect their governments to protect them against devil's tongue jelly, and the governments acted. After all, 17 people have died since 1995. During that same period, deaths from eating mochi have numbered in at least the hundreds in Japan alone.

The government has not acted to protect Japanese nationals, residents from abroad, and visitors. Devil's tongue jelly does not have the same support as mochi; products that cause cancer and heart disease; unsafe drivers and vehicles that cause traffic accidents; and other dangers we face in our daily lives. We can expect protection where we barely need it. In other areas, we should not expect protection as we will not receive it. Caveat emptor.


Aaron Language Services ( ) provides translation, proofreading, and online English coaching to a primarily Japanese client base.

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