Mochi - Deadly Weapon in the Fight Against Aging Society
If you're visiting Japan, especially in the winter season, forget about ninjas or poisonous blowfish. Your caution should be squarely focused on Japan's true culinary ninja -- while appearing to be a harmless block of rice starch, mochi is ready and willing to cleanse Japan of its unwanted elements.
You might hear that mochi, due to its stretchiness when heated, is symbolic of long life. This is the reason that mochi and toshikoshi-soba are traditionally eaten on New Year's Day. WRONG. This is all part of a Japanese Government plot to kill the elderly.
You may be familiar with Japan's aging society crisis. Here's the story: The Japanese are really healthy, especially the elderly, the one group that Coca-Cola Corp. and MacDonald's cannot effectively target. They refuse to die, stubbornly collecting pensions four years longer than their American counterparts. Because they don't die, there's a lot of them. Because Japanese birth rates are at all-time lows, in about 20 or 30 years, there will be a higher rate of retired elderly to working-age citizens than the Japanese economy can support. One of the unpleasant side-effects will be a labour shortage, requiring more and more foreign workers.
The solution? Kill 'em! Japan Tobacco, a 66% government-owned corporation, tries its best to kill the elderly by giving away millions of cigarettes on Keiro no Hi, Respect for the Aged Day. However, this plan is staved off by the cancer-fighting powers of renegade beverage green tea. There are also medical costs associated with the unpleasant, lingering death. A better weapon was needed. Instead of relying on the tried-and-true American method of poor diet and neglect, Japan has found a traditional solution -- rice cakes.
Every year, mochi deaths hit their peak during the week period of December 26 and January 3. As respected noder gn0sis notes above, most mochi deaths are caused by asphyxiation brought on by choking on warm mochi. Obviously, it's pretty hard to kill yourself on a blob of rice starch... unless you're physically frail or just generally clueless. This method of mochi death accurately targets the two most unwanted groups -- the elderly and foreigners.
Like ninja, mochi can kill you in more than one way. Another common application of mochi is in certain celebrations, most notably, the mochi-maki that respected noder liontamer describes above. The uncooked mochi, resembling ultra-dense, gravity-powered, white bricks of death, rains shuriken-like down upon crowds, striking those either too slow (elderly) or too stupid (foreigners) to get out of the way.
When I attended the Uni Matsuri in Haboro this year, an announcement was made prior to the mochi-maki: "Small children should not participate due to the danger of falling mochi." This makes sense -- killing them off in the crossfire would undermine efforts to reverse the aging society. Of course, there was no warning for the seniors, and no attempt to make an English announcement for the foreigners. I saw no confirmed fatalities, but I was a bit preoccupied with getting the hell out of the line of fire.
So, when you get back from Japan, and everyone asks if you tried fugu, you can tell them, "If you thought the poisonous blowfish was deadly, you should see the rice cakes!"
For more amusing reading on the subject of killer mochi, please see:
PS. Although most of this is satirical, it is true that mochi causes more deaths than fugu. (I'm pretty sure that mochi is consumed a lot more often than fugu, though.) At any rate, be careful, especially if you're trying it for the first time.
PPS. Oh yeah, the bit about Japan Tobacco is also true.