At least three Japanese died and 15 were hospitalized after choking on sticky rice cakes traditionally eaten during the New Year's holidays, police and fire department officials said Tuesday.

Tokyo Fire Department official Hiroyuki Komatsu said a 76-year-old man in Tokyo and a 68-year-old man in Fuchu city in western greater Tokyo choked to death Tuesday eating the chewy fare.

Another 14 people between the ages of 65 and 91 were taken to local hospitals Monday and Tuesday, including seven who were unconscious and in serious condition, he added.

An 80-year-old man in Ibaraki state, north of Tokyo, also died and a 47-year-old man in northwestern Niigata prefecture was hospitalized after choking on a mochi rice cake, local police officials said.

Every year, some Japanese die from choking on mochi, which is made of highly compressed sticky rice, and typically grilled and wrapped in dried seaweed, or served in a soup called "ozoni."

In Tokyo last year, three elderly people died and 30 others were hospitalized after the mochi was stuck in their throats.

Officials issue annual warnings about the risks of eating mochi, urging people to take small bites, chew well and drink plenty of liquids.

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