In September 2008, a 1-year-old Japanese boy choked to death on devil’s tongue jelly. Glucomannan, the Latin name for devil’s tongue, is also called konjac, konjac mannan, konjaku, voodoo lily, snake palm, and elephant yam. The Japanese word is konnyaku.
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 government announced the 17 deaths, primarily those of children and the elderly, 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 children and the elderly. 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 whole and have appropriate warning labels.
Konnyaku is a traditional Japanese food that presents no danger in most of its forms such as 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 was not even one of the top four. Mochi, which is pounded rice, was number one, and was followed by rice, bread and rice porridge. Approximately 85% of the fatalities were senior citizens. 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, fatalities 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 backing as mochi; products that cause cancer and heart disease; unsafe vehicles and drivers 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.
Author: Tom Aaron
Aaron Language Services www.aaronlanguage.com provides translation to and from Japanese, proofreading of English and other European languages, and online English coaching to a primarily Japanese client base. Our coaching focuses on English writing and is one on one.