TIME Japan

This Traditional New Year’s Delicacy Killed Nine People in Japan

The Art of Making Traditional Japanese Sweets Wagashi
Mochi at Amaneya sweet shop in Himeji, Japan, on Jan. 23, 2014 Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images

Another 13 were hospitalized

Mochi, a traditional New Year’s food in Japan, has made headlines again this year after it apparently led nine people to die from choking.

A chewy cake made from pounded rice, mochi is eaten year-round in Japan, though is traditionally food for New Year, devoured in large quantities in a vegetable broth, or roasted and coated with sugar and soy flour.

The glutinous texture of mochi means it can become lodged in people’s throats and lead to suffocation. This New Year, local media reported nine people died from accidental choking, up from two deaths the previous year; 13 others remain in a serious condition.

Each year before the New Year’s festivities, Japan’s fire and police departments advise people, particularly children and the elderly, to divide the rice cakes into very small chunks before eating them and to do so in the presence of others.

According to the Guardian, one company in the city of Osaka is using an enzyme to make mochi less sticky and easier to swallow. The country’s food-safety commission found in 2010 that mochi was the food most often involved in choking incidents, with over 80% of victims ages 65 or above.

TIME Japan

Japan’s Aging Population Woes Worsen with New Record Low Birth-Rate in 2014

The number of births fell to a record low for the fourth straight year

The estimated number of Japanese newborns fell to just 1.001 million in 2014 compared with 1.269 million registered deaths, the lowest birth-rate ever recorded and one that exacerbates the East Asian nation’s ongoing struggles with an aging and shrinking population.

“The number of reproductive-age women is on the decline,” an official at Japan’s health, labour and welfare ministry told Kyodo News, leading to a subsequent drop in the number of children, AFP reports.

The government has warned that by 2060, nearly 40% of the population will be aged 65 or over. Data released last April shows it is already difficult for the East Asian nation of to support the elderly and pensioners who currently make up 25% of its population.

TIME Japan

Japan Orders Chicken Cull Amid Another Bird-Flu Outbreak

It's the second time in two weeks

Local authorities in Japan’s Miyazaki prefecture have begun slaughtering 42,000 chickens after dead fowl at a poultry farm tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5 strain of the bird-flu virus.

The case comes less than two weeks after the virus was confirmed at another farm in the same prefecture, prompting the cull of 4,000 birds, Kyodo news agency reports.

Sterilization points have been set up on roads around the newly affected farm. Poultry within a radius of 3 km of the farm cannot be transported and shipments of another 1.93 million birds to areas lying within 10 km of the property have been halted.

“Unlike the first case, the bird flu this time will involve far bigger numbers of chickens and farms. We need to move quickly,” Miyazaki Governor Shunji Kono said on Sunday.

Miyazaki prefecture experienced a mass bird-flu outbreak in 2011, leading to the cull of more than a million chickens.

A prefectural official said it is not clear whether the two recent cases are connected.

[Kyodo]

TIME

The Quirky Ways 7 Other Countries Celebrate Christmas

JAPAN-JAL-KFC
Japan Airlines President Yoshiharu Ueki (2nd L) and Masao Watanabe (2nd R), President of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan pose with a statue of Colonel Sanders (C) wearing a Santa Claus costume during a photo session after a press conference to announce their new "AIR Kentucky Fried Chicken" in-flight fried chicken service, in Tokyo on November 28, 2012. KAZUHIRO NOGI—AFP/Getty Images

Italy's Epiphany witch, Iceland's "Yule cat" and why Japan eats KFC at Christmas

If you’ve ever considered it odd that U.S. Christmas traditions revolve around indoor trees (real and plastic) and a plump, bearded man sliding down chimneys… you’re not wrong.

In fact, our conception of Santa Claus can largely be attributed to a single 1828 poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which enshrined the nation’s image of Santa–with his “little round belly” and a beard “as white as the snow–and propagated the idea of him coming through chimneys to deliver gifts in stockings, now common knowledge to children across the country. It’s just one of the ways our Christmas traditions can be traced to quirks of history.

But odd and seemingly arbitrary Christmas traditions are not only the purview of the United States. Around the world, in countries that are majority Christian and countries that are majority not, unique practices emerge as the holiday approaches.

Here’s a look at some of the notable and sometimes bizarre Christmas time traditions around the world.

Japan

The vast majority of Japan is not Christian, but one Christmas tradition persists: a trip to KFC. Since a “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign was launched in Japan in 1974, the American chain has become a popular Christmas Eve hotspot. The campaign worked so well that sales that night typically outpace those of the rest of the year. Some people even order their bucket of fried chicken ahead, to beat the Christmas crowds.

Sweden

In the Swedish town of Gävle, it is traditional to construct a 30-foot tall giant straw “Yule Goat” — a Christmas symbol in Sweden for centuries. And it’s tradition for some meddling kids (actually, unidentified criminal arsonists) to try to burn it down. According to the Gävle tourist board, the goat has been burned down 25 times since its construction became an annual tradition in 1966. So far this year, the Gävle goat is safely standing, as you can see on this webcam. You can also follow him on Twitter.

India

Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of the Indian population, or 24 million people. But Christmas trees in the warm climate are in short supply, so in lieu of the evergreen conifer many Indian families will adorn banana or mango trees with ornaments. In Christian communities, which are mostly in southern India, people put oil-lamps of clay on their flat roof-tops to celebrate the season.

Ukraine

Americans would recognize the Christmas trees decorated in Ukraine, as they’re similar to the traditional, Western fir tree, but Ukrainians will sometimes decorate them with an unlikely ornament: spider webs. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale, about a widow whose family was so poor they had no money to decorate their tree. Instead, a spider span a web around it on Christmas Eve — and when the first light of day hit it on Christmas morning, it turned into a beautiful web of gold and silver.

Iceland

Beware the Yule Cat! This traditional Christmas fiend is said to terrorize the Icelandic countryside, particularly targeting those who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. But the frightening festive feline is just one of Iceland’s “Christmas fiends”, who include Grýla, a three-headed ogress with goat-horns. The creature’s sons, the “Yule Lads”, hand out Christmas gifts to children who have been good (and rotten vegetables to those who have been bad).

Italy

Only in Italy do the witches bring gifts to children. That’s La Befana, a broom-flying, kindly witch who effectively takes over from Santa–in Italy, “Babbo Natale”—about two weeks after Christmas on Epiphany to deliver gifts to the good, and ash to the bad. Though the witch has her roots in the pre-Christian pagan tradition, she features in some tellings of the Christmas story in Italy — as an old woman who refuses to give the Wise Men directions to Bethlehem because she is too busy cleaning, and is forced to ride a broomstick for eternity as a result. The town of Le Marche, in northwestern Italy, celebrates her coming every January.

Czech Republic

Save the ham. In the Czech Republic, carp is the mainstay of a Christmas dinner. The tradition of eating carp on Christian holidays dates back as far as the 11th century, when Bohemian monasteries would construct fishponds for the express use of farming the fish. Until recently, Czech families would buy a live carp in the weeks before Christmas and keep it in a bathtub, before slaughtering it on Christmas Eve ready for the following day’s meal. Many Czechs still take part in the festive superstition of saving a dried (and cleaned) scale from the Christmas fish in their wallets for luck over the coming year.

READ NEXT Here’s Where to Watch Your Favorite Christmas Movies

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TIME Japan

Japanese PM Orders ‘Thorough Measures’ After First Bird Flu Outbreak in 8 Months

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MIXA—Getty Images/MIXA

Poultry culled and affected farms quarantined

Japan ordered the culling of about 4,000 chickens Tuesday following an outbreak of avian influenza at one of the country’s poultry farms.

The owner of the farm in the country’s southwest reported that 20 of his birds died suddenly over the weekend, following which a DNA test revealed the presence of the H5 strain of the bird flu virus, AFP reported.

The affected farm, located in Miyazaki prefecture on the island of Kyushu, has been locked down along with several others surrounding it. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered “thorough measures for epidemic prevention” in what is the country’s first confirmed bird-flu outbreak since April.

[AFP]

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: December 15

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Sydney in Lockdown Amid Developing Hostage Crisis

Heavily armed police fanned out across downtown Sydney on Monday after an unidentified man took an undisclosed number of people hostage at a café in the central business district of Australia’s largest city. Five hostages fled the premises in the afternoon

Meet the Sony Exec Tied Up in the Worst Corporate Hack Ever

The Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment has been the executive behind successful movies like Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty

Dick Cheney on CIA Interrogations Order: ‘I’d Do It Again in a Minute’

Former Vice President Dick Cheney fiercely defended the CIA’s brutal, post-9/11 interrogation tactics in an interview

Johnny Manziel Stumbles During Debut Start for Browns

Manziel looked overwhelmed and frustrated in Sunday’s 30-0 loss, throwing several passes too high and finishing with 10 completions in 18 attempts for 80 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and three sacks

Japan’s Ruling Coalition Wins Big in Elections

Japan’s ruling coalition, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, won a resounding victory in lower house elections, firming up Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hold on power as he prepares to push forward on several politically difficult fronts

Bill Cosby Briefly Breaks His Silence

The actor and comedian accused of drugging and/or sexually assaulting more than a dozen women briefly explained why hasn’t responded to the claims, saying his lawyers “don’t want me talking to the media”

R&B Icon D’Angelo Releases His First Album in 14 Years

D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years is impressively timely, unveiled as it was at a New York City listening session one day after an estimated 25,000 people in the same city protested police brutality against unarmed black citizens. Black Messiah came out at midnight

One of the World’s 6 Northern White Rhinos Has Died

The world has only five northern white rhinos left, after the sixth, Angalifu, died at the San Diego Zoo on Sunday. He was 44 and zoo officials said he had been refusing food for a week. Decades of wide-scale poaching have driven the rhinos to the brink of extinction

Deal Salvaged at U.N. Climate Talks in Peru

A compromise deal salvaged by climate negotiators in Lima early Sunday sets the stage for a global pact in Paris next year, but a consensus could not be reached on nations submitting to a rigorous review of their plans for greenhouse gas emissions limits

Newtown Mom Decries Gun Violence on Anniversary

The mother of a first-grader killed in the Newtown school shooting rampage spoke out against gun violence on the second anniversary of the massacre, saying it has broken the hearts of other mothers across the country

Exodus Dethrones Mockingjay to Win Weekend Box Office

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which tells the Old Testament story of Moses and features Christian Bale, earned $24.5 million to unseat The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 for the top spot at the American box office

Suspect Arrested in Death of Auburn Football Player

A suspect in the early morning shooting death of an Auburn University football player was arrested, police said. Markale Deandra Hart, 22, was charged with murder in connection with the death of Mitchell, who was found dead at an apartment near campus

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TIME movies

The Japanese Studio That Launched the Franchise Is Making a New Godzilla Movie

Godzilla Eats A Commuter Train
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) Toho/Embassy Pictures/Getty Images

“The time has come for Japan to make a film that will not lose to Hollywood”

Director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot was a box office rainmaker, earning $525 million worldwide. But Godzilla was born in Japan, and the Japanese studio that produced the first Godzilla movie in 1954 wants back in on the lucrative franchise. According to Variety, the studio, Toho, plans to begin filming next summer and release the film in 2016, a few years ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The most recent of Toho’s 28 Godzilla movies, out in 2004, was to be the last, largely thanks to disappointing revenues. But the overwhelming success of this year’s American version along with advances in computer graphics, says Toho producer Taichi Ueda, inspired the studio to get back in the reptilian monster game.

Looking to compete with the U.S. and develop a character that “will represent Japan and be loved around the world,” Toho is convening a committee of directors and studio executives, the Godzilla Strategic Conference, or Godzi-Con for short. There is still no word on a director or casting. But a competitive spirit will surely fuel the producers as the film takes shape — Edwards’ Godzilla 2 is slated for release in 2018.

TIME Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Defends Abenomics Ahead of Elections

Shinzo Abe
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Nov. 18, 2014 Shizuo Kambayashi—AP

The vote will test public confidence in the prime minister's set of economic reforms

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday took on the leaders of six opposition parties in a debate marking the start of the official campaign season for this month’s elections. The polls are widely seen as a referendum on the incumbent’s economic policies.

Abe had in November called snap elections for the next month to let voters weigh in on so-called Abenomics — a package of reforms to boost the Japanese economy — after Japan dipped into recession and stoked fears that the reforms were unsuccessful, the Associated Press reports.

The incumbent prime minister is expected to easily come out of the elections with a four-year mandate to helm Japan and press onward with Abenomics, despite Moody’s cutting Japan’s credit rating this week.

Critics of Abenomics have castigated the policies as supporting just big businesses and the well-heeled. Abe has said it will take time to see the full benefits of the reforms, which seek to end deflation.

TIME Japan

A Japanese Woman Has Been Linked to the Deaths of Six of Her Partners

The men all died shortly after starting a relationship with her

A Japanese woman, who has been linked to a series of mysterious deaths, has been arrested on suspicion of fatally poisoning her husband.

Sixty-seven-year-old Chisako Kakehi was arrested by Kyoto police on Wednesday. Japanese media say cyanide was found in the body of her 75-year-old husband, who died in Dec. 2013, one month after the couple was married, Associated Press reports.

But Isao Kakehi was just one of six men who came to untimely deaths shortly after marrying or beginning a relationship with the woman.

In 2012, cyanide was also found in the blood of her 71-year-old partner who died after falling off his motorcycle. According to Kyodo news service, the cause of death was attributed to heart disease.

Chisako Kakehi denies she had a hand in any of the deaths.

[AP]

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