In 1992, an insidious, sometimes fatal virus for which no cure existed was infecting people, and multiplying exponentially. Japan's own rates of infection remained fairly low, but people were concerned and in the absence of definitive explanations sought the advice of experts.
At least some sought to bolster their immune systems with the miracle food: natto.
When asked if consumption of natto would help ward off AIDS, a physician told a popular weekly men's magazine, "Well it can't hurt, and it's good for you, so you might as well eat it anyway."
For the uninitiated, natto is fermented soybeans. High in protein and with other beneficial nutrients, yet inexpensive, they are widely consumed in the eastern part of Japan, which statistically may boast a lower incidence of stroke thanks to the consumption thereof.
Unfortunately, natto has an unattractive appearance, slimy consistency and ammonia-like odor that tend to alienate both people in western Japan and all but the most adventuresome foreigners.
But now, reports Yukan Fuji (March 18), natto is once again in high demand, flying off store shelves as people have somehow got it into their heads that it might offer some protection against the novel coronavirus.
One reason for this perception may be due to Ibaraki Prefecture -- the center of natto production in Japan -- which no cases of infection until March 17, when the media reported the first case, a Hitachi worker who had recently returned to Japan from Italy.
Up to that point at least, the fermented beans had been enjoying unusually high demand. It seems that from around mid-February people posting on social networks had noticed that natto was often sold out in stores. Others, with no evidence to support their claims, were suggesting consumption of natto might help ward off coronavirus infection.
Transposing the statistics for natto consumption (during 2017 through 2019) with reported cases of the outbreak, we can see why some might be led to think so. The nation's top consumers of natto, in descending order, were the regional cities of Fukushima, Morioka, Mito, Yamagata, Maebashi, Nagano and Sendai.
And the number of reported cases in the prefectures that hosted the above cities? Just two cases in Fukushima, one in Ibaraki, and zero in Iwate and Yamagata.
The run on natto appears to have been set off after Jan 30, when the National Cancer Research Center reported that its survey had found "lower risks of death from respiratory diseases from people with high consumption of natto."
A spokesperson for the Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation told Yukan Fuji, "Around the start of February, demand for natto was doing well, but as more people flocked to stores during the panic buying of toilet paper and other item, they also purchased natto, instant cup noodles, yogurt, eggs and so on. And as more kids stayed home from school and ate at home, demand jumped even more, and stores began running out of natto. This may have led some people to circulate unfounded remarks to the effect that natto was effective in warding off the new coronavirus."
Whoa, let's get this straight: In other words, rather than rumors setting off panic buying, it's the sales that were responsible for generating the rumors? Apparently so.
On March 10, the government's Consumer Affairs Agency issued an advisory warning people against health food labeling claims of beneficial effects against the coronavirus. Among them was one that asserted, "The virus can't defeat natural straw-wrapped natto! It destroys the membrane on the germs that causes pneumonia!"
Shipments of natto at present are said to be up by 20% over the same period of 2019. The aforementioned industry spokesperson observed, "Sold- out food invites even more demand, and also generates misinformation. It requires two to three days to produce natto, and as procurement of the ingredients also takes time, we would hope to see consumers taking it easy and not overdoing it."© Japan Today