Risky Fish-ness: 12yo in Japan Passes Fugu Preparation Exam

Risky Fish-ness: 12yo in Japan Passes Fugu Preparation Exam

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Picture: セーラム / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
It's the tastiest fish that might kill you. But one elementary school kid in Japan has mastered preparing it so well that he's now certified.

Japanese cuisine is celebrated worldwide for its exquisite ingredients and meticulous preparation. Yet, amidst these culinary delights, one food stands out for an unexpected reason: fugu.

As most everyone knows from watching The Simpsons, this delicacy, when ill-prepared, can kill. Now comes word that one Japanese prefecture has certified the youngest person ever as skilled in preparing the potentially deadly catch.

Delicious but deadly

Fugu cuisine
In the hands of a qualified chef, fugu is a delicacy. In the hands of an unqualified chef…well, we hope your will’s up to date. (Picture: runa / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Fugu, the Japanese pufferfish, offers a uniquely chewy and firm flavor that tantalizes the palate, leaving a subtle numbing sensation on the tongue. Treasured across Japan, this culinary gem also entices foreign visitors with its irresistible appeal.

You can enjoy fugu thinly sliced as sashimi or in a rich-flavored hot pot, surprising your taste buds either way. But what might catch you off guard, not in a pleasant manner, is that this seemingly innocuous fish harbors a highly poisonous toxin that can be fatal. With its lethal potential, Japanese chefs must undergo rigorous licensing to handle it.

Fish industry wonder kid

男児がふぐ処理者試験に合格 三重の小学生では初 自ら釣りふるまう12歳

2024年3月23日放送 #三重県 #三重テレビ #ニュース #news#ふぐ#小学生

Mie TV shows 12yo Uchiyama Yusuke in action.

12-year-old Uchiyama Yusuke’s passion for fish began at the tender age of 2 on fishing trips with his dad. From wielding knives in first grade to mastering over 200 fish species, Uchiyama’s journey has now led him to the ultimate test: processing the highly poisonous fugu fish. Along the way, he honed his abilities by watching YouTube videos and learning from professionals, steadily growing more adept and capable.

Uchiyama owes much of his success to his mentor, Kitamura Goh, owner of a dried fish shop in Owase City. Kitamura not only shared his profound fishing expertise with Uchiyama but also sparked the idea of pursuing the Fugu handler exam when age restrictions were lifted. What began as a casual suggestion soon became a serious ambition, fueled by Kitamura’s encouragement.


 “He’s better than me… He has the ‘Owase Fisheries Spirit’ within him,” Okamura remarked. 

This was refreshing news for the city of Owase, where the flourishing fish industry has been grappling with a shortage of manpower. Mayor Kato at Owase City Hall warmly welcomed young Uchiyama on the 19th to extend congratulations and express their joy over this promising milestone.

Handle with care

Fuguchiri, a type of fugu hot pot. (Picture: rogue / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Fugu, the Japanese pufferfish, holds a special place in Japanese cuisine, with roots tracing back to the discovery of pufferfish bones in the Jomon period.

In the Edo period, it soared in popularity with many recipes. However, Toyotomi Ideyoshi swiftly banned its consumption after incidents of samurai falling ill from poisoning.

It wasn’t until the Meiji period, when proper cooking techniques were refined, that legalization occurred. Yet, in culinary hubs like Osaka, fugu was circulating well before its official approval.

Its most visually appealing eating forms are the aesthetically pleasing sashimi known as “tessa” and comforting hot pot dishes called tecchiri. Once served, fugu resembles any other fish on your plate. However, mishandling during preparation can lead to severe poisoning.

Fugu contains a potent toxin called tetrodotoxin in its blood, muscles, organs, and skin. This toxin defies heat, standing strong even against high cooking temperatures. It is allegedly 1000 times stronger than potassium cyanide.

Many aren’t aware that fugu isn’t naturally toxic. It’s the marine bacteria it ingests that make it highly poisonous. The accumulation of these bacteria in the body results in varying levels of toxicity. This unique trait distinguishes fugu from other toxic ingredients like green plums and konjac potatoes. The degree of poisoning depends on the species and the individual fish, making it akin to solving a puzzle with constantly shifting pieces.

Some of the initial symptoms, like headaches and severe vomiting, are relatively mild. However, fugu poisoning can escalate to numbness and paralysis. In the worst-case scenario, it can prove fatal. Once toxic fugu is consumed, the poisoning progresses swiftly, often leading to death within 4 to 6 hours of the first symptoms. Of course, outcomes can vary.

Over the past decade, fugu-related deaths have been on a steady decline, with only 22 fatalities reported from 2012 to 2022. This represents roughly 36% of all food poisoning deaths. Last year, there were 10 poisonings, resulting in 1 death. While the fatality rate remains a concern, the license system is proving effective in minimizing risks.

Loved by many, made by few

Since 1947, the government has set regulations for processing fugu in response to its rising popularity nationwide. Under the Food Sanitation Act (Act No. 233 of 1947), only individuals with proper licenses and certifications can handle fugu. In 1983, the Ministry of Health issued the “Regarding the Hygiene Assurance of Fugu” notice, offering detailed guidelines on fugu types, edible parts, and processing compliance requirements.

The government’s push for regulating fugu processing to protect public health has been steady. Yet, these regulations vary greatly across prefectures, lacking uniformity. Each region has its own way of testing aspiring fugu handlers, leading to inconsistencies in licensing.

While some areas insist on training alone, others, like Tokyo, demand both training and exams. In 2015, the Ministry of Health reported a staggering 20 different sets of guidelines among the 47 prefectures. Adding to the mix, only candidates with prior fish processing experience can sit for the exam.

Exams often have two parts: written and practical. The written section quizzes candidates on sanitary regulations, food hygiene, fugu physiology, and toxicology. Meanwhile, the practical test assesses their skills in identifying fugu species and organs and mastering processing techniques, including separating edible from inedible parts.

Local fishing industries and associations have long advocated for the nationwide unification of fugu licenses. They argue that this would broaden the pool of skilled technicians able to handle the toxin, ultimately boosting national consumption.

Their efforts bore fruit in 2019 when the Ministry of Health urged each prefecture to eliminate the prior experience requirement. This change opened doors for youngsters like Yusuke, igniting hope for the future of an industry grappling with challenges from an aging population.

“To spread the love for fugu cuisine, we need experts to handle its toxin. The requirement for practical experience has hindered not just Japanese cuisine but also the inclusion of fugu in Chinese and French restaurants. If fugu gains popularity beyond Japan, exports are poised to soar,” shared Kazutoshi Sakai, Chairman of the Shimonoseki Fish Market Cooperative Association, with a sense of relief.

National culinary treasure

Despite strides forward, the absence of unification has significant implications for technician numbers, prefectural production volumes, and subsequent consumption.

In Osaka Prefecture, where licenses are attainable solely through training sessions, without the need for exams, there are five times more license holders compared to Tokyo. While production levels might not match those of other regions, consumption here reigns supreme nationwide.

For years, western Japan has held the crown as the top catcher and producer of fugu. However, recently, Yamaguchi Prefecture, famous for its Shimonoseki market, has encountered tough times amidst global changes and regulatory inconsistencies. Rising seawater temperatures and shifting fishing grounds have dealt a blow to this once-thriving industry.

In 2022, Hokkaido led the charge with a staggering 1,676 tons of pufferfish caught, followed by Ishikawa Prefecture (655 tons) and Kochi Prefecture (503 tons). In contrast, Yamaguchi trailed far behind in 35th place, totaling just 254 tons.

The fluctuating regulations have been a major factor in the current scenario. According to the Yamaguchi Prefecture Life and Health Division, only 17 individuals participated in the 2022 Fugu handler exam, a stark drop from the 43 participants in 2017. Compounding the issue, the industry is graying, with 60% of the total prefectural fugu license holders aged 65 or older.

Amidst these trends, the story of a 12-year-old mastering the exam and earning authorization as a fugu technician sparked hope in fishing industries across Japan. With more experts on board, production could soar, potentially driving up consumption. After all, regardless of their diversity, success in one prefecture has the power to spread far and wide.

A bright future ahead

Japanese fish holds a special place in our hearts, forming the cornerstone of beloved national meals. Yet, the fishing industry in Japan faces significant hurdles, with waning interest from the younger generation casting doubt on its future prosperity.

Amidst the lingering risks associated with fishes like fugu, the allure of joining the business wanes even further. Yet, against this backdrop, the story of 12-year-old Yusuke has breathed new life into the industry. His ascent as a fugu handler isn’t just an addition; it signals a new wave of enthusiasm. His early dedication to fishing offers a beacon of hope for a sector that has aged alongside society.


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