A Toxic Fascination: Pufferfish (Fugu) in Japanese Art and Culture
On the ground level of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in a case dedicated to lamp-lights and lanterns, a strikingly unique object can be spotted: a hanging lantern made from the dried skin of a pufferfish (a fish referred to as fugu in Japan, where this lantern originates from). This object (1909.32.10) was acquired in 1909 by Miss E. C. Bell, a field collector for the Pitt Rivers Museum. A similar pufferfish-skin lantern from China (crafted in 1883 according the Pitt Rivers Museums’ collections database) was acquired by Oxford University Museum in 1893, and entered the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1917 (1893.82.4).
|Japanese Fugu lantern 1909.32.10|
|Pufferfish lantern from China, 1893.82.4|
While not exactly common, lamps such as these ones made from genuine dried puffer skin can still be purchased today. They have historically been found across Japan as children’s toys, folk art, souvenirs, and as decorations and advertisements outside restaurants specialising in the preparation of fugu. Pufferfish skin has also been used in Japan in the creation of everyday items such as wallets and waterproof boxes. Pufferfish lanterns made from paper can also be found throughout the country – the restaurant Tsuboraya in Osaka (which closed in 2020 due to Covid, but served customers fugu delicacies for nearly a century) was known for the iconic oversized pufferfish-shaped paper lanterns which hung outside to advertise the restaurant.
|Exterior of the Tsuboraya restaurant in Okanawa, Japan, before its closure in 2020|
Other than in the form of lanterns, pufferfish can be found referenced in Japanese visual culture (both historical and contemporary) as well as throughout popular culture worldwide, most likely due to their unique appearance and the fact that they are highly poisonous. For example, Hiroshige’s Shoal of Fishes print series from 1832 features an illustrated pufferfish, and the creature makes numerous appearances in Japanese folk culture. In contemporary Western media, a notable reference to the fish can be found in a 1991 episode of the popular animated cartoon The Simpsons, in which the main character eats improperly prepared fugu while visiting Japan and is told he only has 24 hours to live, due to the fact that the dish is toxic if prepared incorrectly.
|Frame from the 1991 Simpson's Episode 'One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue fish'|
Despite this toxicity, fugu have been viewed as a delicacy in Japan for centuries, with evidence suggesting that they were eaten as early as the Jōmon period; pufferfish bones have been found in shell middens/kaizuka (dumps for domestic waste) dating back 2300 years. They are also present in Korean cuisine and can be found referenced in traditional Korean culture. Due to their high levels of toxicity – fugu flesh can be hundreds of times more poisonous than cyanide – they were banned as a dish by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period, but with the fall of the Shogunate they rose to popularity once again. In Japan, chefs are now required to obtain a license (requiring three years of training) to prepare and serve the dish, in order to avoid potentially fatal incidents (multiple people have died in the past as a result of consuming improperly prepared fugu). Given this potential toxicity, it might come as a surprise that fugu is one of the most prestigious and celebrated Japanese dishes. The town of Shimonoseki is known as the fugu capital of Japan, where the fish are caught and sold, and Osaka is also known for its high consumption of the fish. Despite scientists having been able to produce a non-toxic version of the fish through altering their diet, the toxic version still proves popular in Japan: for those that choose to consume fugu, perhaps the danger is part of its appeal.
Print by Hiroshige including a pufferfish (below), 1832 (woodblock print) Illustration by Kuwagata Keisai in a children's book The Servants of the Dragon, King of the Sea: Fish and Sea, Edo period
By Lois Gardner (Pitt Rivers Museum Intern, History of Art student, University of Oxford)