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A Taste for Danger: The Hazardous History of Fugu

Sumiki Hikari [Profile]


There is a scene in a 1977 instalment of the Torakku yarō (Truck Guys) series where the main character is buried in sand up to his neck as a cure for the effects of eating fugu blowfish. The protagonist, played by Sugawara Bunta, feels his whole body going numb after partaking of the fish—famously poisonous if prepared incorrectly—and submits to the surprising traditional remedy.

The film takes place in my hometown of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the fugu capital of Japan. Two years before its release, the kabuki star Bandō Mitsugorō VIII died from poisoning after overindulgence in his beloved dish of torafugu (tiger blowfish) liver at a Kyoto restaurant. This raised the profile of fugu and its life-threatening properties.

According to the Ministry of Health, even today half of all food poisoning deaths in Japan come from eating blowfish. In a typical year, some 50 people suffer fugu poisoning in around 30 incidents, some of which result in fatalities. (There are also cases of fugu poisoning in Taiwan, where a total of 11 people died in 15 incidents taking place from 1991 to 2011.) Blowfish contain tetrodotoxin, which causes symptoms of numbness and paralysis 20 minutes to three hours after ingestion. These spread to the whole body, in serious cases leading to death by respiratory failure. People take their life in their hands when eating fugu.

Detoxified Dinners

Is sand burial really a good way to cure fugu poisoning?

“It’s total superstition!” says Ueno Ken’ichirō, owner of the Shimonoseki restaurant Fuku no Seki, which specializes in blowfish—known in the local dialect as fuku. Formerly a fugu wholesaler, Fuku no Seki is now the parent organization for processing company Daifuku, so Ueno knows his blowfish.

A fugu auction. (Courtesy Shimonoseki municipal government)

There have been no poisoning cases in Yamaguchi Prefecture for decades. Would-be fugu cooks are required to get licenses in many Japanese prefectures, including Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Ōita, Tokyo, and Osaka. Ueno says, “There are very tight standards in Yamaguchi. We take pride in preparing blowfish safely.”

Four in five Japanese fugu caught in the wild or farm-raised—mainly in Nagasaki Prefecture—come to Yamaguchi, because of the numerous local processing companies. After toxic elements are removed in processing, the fish, rendered harmless, are shipped nationwide.

For this reason, the kind of scene depicted in the film is now almost unimaginable. Fugu served in a professional establishment very rarely causes poisoning. The vast majority of blowfish poisoning incidents in Japan occur when amateurs prepare the dish.

The case of Bandō Mitsugorō VIII was different. Probably many people now would find it difficult to understand how he considered toxic tiger blowfish liver to be a delicacy. Many gourmets of the time, however, dipped fugu sashimi into soy sauce mixed with fugu liver instead of wasabi. The poisonous elements made the tongue smart and go numb—sensations to savor while drinking. Befuddled by numbness and alcohol, Bandō consumed too much, overshooting his tolerance level and succumbing to death. Chefs would not allow this to happen today.

  • [2018.01.19]

Writer based in Taiwan, where she has lived since 2006. Graduated from the Kyoto City University of Arts. Writes about Taiwan and its culture for Japanese media. Works include Taiwan, Y-jiro sagashi (Looking for Y-Junctions in Taiwan). Her website (Japanese language only) is Taipei Story.

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