Hay Fever in Japan

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pollen

Do you suffer from hay fever? Check out the article by Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor for The Times. He has lived in Japan since 1995 and unfortunately suffers from hay fever. 

It begins as it does every year in this season: on the first of the sunny days of March, I am woken from sleep when, with a brief tickle of warning, my nose explodes. Between bed and bathroom, I sneeze another half a dozen times; by the time I’ve got my hands on a piece of tissue paper, my nose is drooling and my eyes feel as if they are being gently buffed with sandpaper. I have had only one other experience like it – six years ago, when I caught a dose of the notoriously powerful tear gas used by the South Korean riot police. This is peaceful Tokyo, but for these few weeks – between the first of the spring sunshine and the passing of the cherry blossom – it is takes on the look of a place under chemical and biological attack.

Outside, people wear white surgical masks over their mouths and noses; even those with perfect eyesight have wide protective spectacles. Salarymen weep into their newspapers; office ladies fumble with nose sprays and eyedrops. For this is the season of hay fever, and across Tokyo millions of people are suffering like me.

The English term hay fever hardly does justice to what Japanese call kafunsho – literally ‘pollen symptoms’, but better thought of as Particle Plague. Cast from your mind images of delicate sniffling on freshly mown lawns – Japanese hay fever is industrial in its scale and ferocity. Scientific studies estimate that 20 million people are affected by it; a couple of years ago, it was reckoned to be costing the country an annual US dollars 2 billion in lost productivity and medical fees. Japan’s parliament even has a parliamentary group dedicated to the problem, known as the Hakushon Giin Renmei (which translates literally as the Atishoo! MPs’ League). But in the face of kafunsho even the most mighty politicians are powerless.

Everyone knows the cause of the problem: the beautiful and magnificent tree called the cryptomeria or Japanese cedar. The reddish brown cryptomerias, with their rugged hundred foot trunks, have a noble and venerable place in Japanese culture. Eerie silent forests of the trees line the approaches to the oldest Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. But they are also a valuable timber tree, quick growing and versatile – and here lies the root of the problem.

In the boom years of Japan’s post-war growth, millions of cryptomeria were harvested and replanted for use in construction. Then rising wages and the slowing economy made it cheaper to import foreign timber. The unharvested cryptomerias flourished and grew – of the 31,000 hectares of forest in the Tokyo metropolitan area, 22,000 hectares are cedars. And every year, at about this time, pollen billows invisibly from their stamens and is borne across the city on the spring breezes.

For some reason, probably because of traffic pollution and the absence of absorbent earth and open ground, people in cities suffer far more than those in the country side. High summer temperatures, too, are said to have increased the pollen yield. The prescription drugs available are unreliable, working for some people and not for others, but every pollen victim seems to have his or her own favourite brand of snake oil. Click here to read the entire article.

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