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'Don't give beans to young kids,' agency warns ahead of bean-throwing rituals in Japan

An alert message appears on the "Cookpad" recipe website, when "Setsubun" and "beans" are included as search keywords.

TOKYO -- "Don't give beans to little kids," Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency is warning people ahead of traditional bean-throwing rituals on Feb. 2.

    The main ritual associated with "Setsubun" -- the day before the first day of spring in the traditional Japanese calendar -- is to throw roasted soybeans to symbolically drive away evil. However, accidents in which children have choked on nuts and other food items in recent years, sometimes resulting in death, have prompted the agency to place a warning on its website, and raise the age up to which particular care should be taken from 3 to 5. Recipe websites are also displaying alert messages. The call for vigilance comes as it has been pointed out that many people may spend more time at home with children this year than usual due to the coronavirus crisis.

    According to the Consumer Affairs Agency's analysis of vital statistics collected by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare between 2014 and 2019, 80 children aged 14 or younger died from aspiration of foreign objects into their lungs during the period. Of these, 73 children, or 90%, were aged 5 or younger.

    Meanwhile, among reports the agency fielded from medical institutions nationwide between 2010 and 2020, there were 164 food-related incidents in which children aged 14 or younger suffered suffocation or aspiration of foreign objects. Of these, 141, or 86%, of the cases involved children aged 5 or younger.

    In one instance, a 2-year-old infant was walking with an almond in their mouth and cried, "I want more," only to choke and be seized by a fit of coughing. The infant was reportedly diagnosed with having a foreign object in their right bronchus, and was hospitalized for six days.

    In another instance, a 4-year-old boy died after he choked on beans during a Setsubun event held at a certified child care center in Matsue in the western Japan prefecture of Shimane on Feb. 3 last year.

    According to doctor Yukihiro Michiwaki, head of the Department of Oral Surgery at Japanese Red Cross Musashino Hospital, the major reason for such accidents is underdevelopment of the airway defense mechanism in babies and infants that protects their pharynges and windpipes from accidentally swallowing food.

    The functions of both chewing and swallowing are necessary to eat beans and nuts. But infants younger than 3, the age when their baby teeth are fully grown, cannot chew food like adults. Furthermore, full coordination between chewing and swallowing is completed only after children's 6-year molars have come through.

    In addition, babies and infants often walk or cry with food in their mouths, which makes it easy for food to fall into their throats, windpipes or bronchi, raising the risk of suffocation, bronchial infection and pneumonia.

    This photo shows a bean-throwing ritual held at Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on Feb. 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    "I'd like people to be aware that there are foods dangerous to babies and infants, even with everyday food for adults," Michiwaki says. "Suffocation and aspiration caused by food can be prevented, so I want everyone to be careful and reduce the number of accidents among children."

    Following the 4-year-old boy's death in Matsue last year, the Consumer Affairs Agency raised its alert age from 3 to 5, and released a warning on Jan. 20. Its three main points are:

    -- Don't give food items that are hard and need to be chewed into smaller pieces, such as beans or nuts, to children aged 5 or younger.

    -- Cut spherical foods, such as cherry tomatoes and grapes, into quarters, or cook them until soft for babies and infants, and make children chew them into smaller pieces.

    -- Make sure children keep good postures while eating, and that they focus on eating.

    A representative at the agency said, "Especially for families with older siblings, we'd like the parents not to give beans and nuts to babies and infants even if they want them when older siblings are eating them."

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Kagawa, Tokyo Regional News Department)

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