Fishy Fish

I was terribly sick yesterday – which I blame on the fish sandwich I ate the evening before. It took all night sitting in my stomach deciding whether to move up or down. I spent a sleepless night, only to be relieved yesterday morning when the vote came in for “up”. I felt groggy all day, with a very strong desire of avoiding any food for a while. I did eat a small pretzel even though I wasn’t really hungry. Finally, I cancelled the last meeting yesterday and went to bed at 5:30 pm, with raised temperature and chills… However, after sleeping for 14 hours, I woke up all right this morning, but let me note here for all posterity: Fish poisoning is not a recommendable pastime!

In any case, it did get me thinking. After all, the Japanese are among the biggest consumers of fish on the planet: They eat about 70 kg of fish per year, that amounts to some 12 % of the world’s consumption of fish – and that despite them only having 2 % of the world’s population!

So, the question is: how often do people suffer from fish poisoning in Japan, given the huge quantities they eat there? Of course, there are no numbers to be found on this…

Personally, I have been to Japan 9 times now, and on my very first trip – to Kyoto in summer 2007 – I ate sushi every single day. I never had any stomach problems in Japan, but the fish there is usually well prepared and very fresh. And I mean very. With slight discomfort I recall the sashimi I had in that bar in Fukuoka: decoratively laid out along the spine of the fish it was carved from – which started twitching at some point…

So yes, Japanese like their fish fresh – which is good, but also poses the problem of parasites. Raw fish as in sushi and sashimi is usually seafish, and they are less likely to carry bacteria, worms and other assorted parasites than freshwater fish. And even so, most fish is frozen (yes, even the one you’d eat “raw”), as freezing below -20 degrees or so for an appropriate length of time will kill the parasites.

Of course, there are other ways of dying from fish poisoning in Japan. In fact, if you google this phrase, you’ll get articles about – Fugu. Fugu is the blowfish famous for its poison, mostly contained in its liver. When properly prepared, i.e., the poisonous body parts are removed, it can be eaten like any other kind of fish. If not … then the poison contained in the fish will paralyze your muscles – while you remain fully conscious. In the end, you will die from asphyxiation. There is no antidote known, so pumping out your stomach and putting you on life support until the poison wears off is the only way of dealing with such a poisoning. There are several incidents every year in Japan, but I guess overall the probability of dying from fugu-poisoning is negligible.

Not so, however, is mercury poisoning. Seafish can contain high levels of mercury, especially tuna, which is highly prized in Japan. Consumed over time, the mercury will accumulate in the body and will affect the nervous system. The metal is apparently hard to excrete from the body, so the best cause of action is to stop ingesting it – by stopping to eat fish.

Hmmm… I love fish, always did… Well, I guess you’ll have to die from something anyway (old age is no excuse), so you can just as well have a bit of fun on the way there…

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