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Did you hear the one about...

Fugu

SMILE!

The characters mentioned in this story, if not already dead, may still be alive

The War had finished only twelve years earlier, and as the Cultural Attaché of the Canadian Embassy in Japan, I had a very delicate job. I had to ensure that everyone I met had a favourable impression of me, and therefore my country. For example, when I went to dinner at the home of a retired Japanese Army Officer, I was exceptionally careful to behave in a way that would cement good relations for the future.

I'd heard that sashimi (slices of raw fish) was a popular Japanese cuisine, though never tried to eat it. But if it was good for Japanese, renowned for their longevity, then I was happy to give it a try. I had been warned to be cautious about eating the dodgy part of fugu (puffer fish), which contains tetrodotoxin, more poisonous than cyanide and caused rapid death. Highly trained fugu chefs require a special licence to prepare the delicacy, which means the cost of the dish is very high. Nevertheless, when I went to Major Tanaka's home I was understandably cautious about eating the fugu sashimi offered to me.

"After you," he said, with a too-warm-to-be-true smile. "No," I replied, "after you!"

"No, no, no," he protested, "you must try this delicious fish. And please take plenty" "I couldn't possible start first. This is your home." I said, trying to conceal my fear.

"I insist," he insisted. "You are in Japan now, and it is the Japanese custom that guests always eat first."

"Of course, I wish to respect your customs," I said, getting quite anxious at this point, "but I'm from Canada, and in Canada, the host always starts eating first." I lied.

And so the gentle banter went on.

It was clear that neither of us would start first, and quite embarrassing when he suddenly blurted, albeit with a grin, "So you think they might be poisonous!" Oh no! I had offended my host. What was I to do? My diplomatic training in dealing with foreign cultures hadn't gone into detail like this. But then he said reassuringly, "Very well. I'll show you this fish is safe to eat. Sato! Sato!" and in an instant, the housemaid Miss Sato came scurrying into the room.

"Sato, fetch Taro and a small dish." he commanded. Now, Taro was an old, weak and rather useless flea-ridden dog, and the dish was to enable Taro to sample some fish. Which he did, with much saliva, noise, burping and tail-wagging. After he had finished one dish-full, he was given another, which was more than sufficient to satisfy me that the fugu was indeed safe to eat. Under great protest and leash pulling, Taro was dragged out of the room and sent outside.

And the meal was delicious! In fact I'd go to say it was the nicest, tastiest food I have ever enjoyed. Poor Major Tanaka barely got a sliver for himself because I ate so much. Boy! Was it good!

But just as I finished, Sato came scurrying back into the room. "Major!" she said (but in Japanese of course) "The dog. It's DEAD!"

Well, you've never seen such a panic as Major Tanaka rushed me out of his house, bundled me into a taxi and we sped off to the nearest hospital. What precisely happened there I cannot relate on these non-PG rated pages, but suffice to say that since no tetrodotoxin antidote exists, there was no alternative but to employ various rubber tubes attached to brass pumps which effectively removed all the contents of my stomach. Not very pleasant, but at least I am alive to tell this tale.

A taxi took us back to Major Tanaka's home for a quiet rest in front of the fire. I had asked the taxi driver to come back for me later to take me home, but the Major insisted that I stay the night to recuperate.

Once more, Sato came into the room. "What is it?" enquired the Major. "There's a taxi driver at the door, Major." explained Sato. "Oh! Send him away. Our guest here will stay the night; we don't need a taxi now." said the Major.

"No, no, Major." said Sato, "It's the driver of the taxi that ran over the dog!"

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