Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

The spring of our discontent

It's hay fever time again!

Springtime is nearly here! Rather than cherry blossoms and new company assignments, however, the change in season may conjure up nothing more in a great many Japanese than a muttered oh no and a queasy feeling way down deep. While the shaky first steps of the season are great for melting away the last of winter's gloom, the warming temperatures and clearing skies are also unmistakable heralds of the black hell of Japanese kafunsho (hay fever), and the many, many annoyances that come with it.

Like a lot of traditional tragedies, the great wound of hay fever is – stunningly – largely self-inflicted. The root cause is the pollen released from two trees: the hinoki (Japanese cypress), and, especially, the sugi (Japanese cedar), the enormous trees commonly seen around the country's shrines and temples.

Though sugi have been around for thousands of years in Japan, they had never been nearly as prevalent (or ailment-causing) until a government ministry very cleverly decided 60 years ago to cut down swaths of the nation's natural forestry of oak and maple, etc. and replace it all with sugi, which could grow and be manufactured faster and, ostensibly, help in the post-War World II recovery the rest of the country was busy with. The sugi did go up – replacing an astonishing 43% of the natural forestry, and accounting for one of the highest concentrations of cedar trees on the planet, according to some estimates – and with it, the nation's hay fever rates. An estimated 10% or 15% of the Japanese population suffer through hay fever allergies, with younger children and people living in larger cities accounting for even higher percentages of suffering; productivity losses are counted in the billions – not millions – of dollars. (And, as icing on the pollen-filled cake, it turned out that due to the enormous processing costs, it's cheaper to simply import foreign-grown lumber than to use the sugi, anyway. Oops!)

Though there is no proper "cure", of course, there are a number of hay fever treatments to lessen some of the more terrible symptoms. (Par for the course, hay fever also generates local pharmaceutical corporations billions – not millions – of dollars.) The most prevalent by far are the masks, must-have medical accoutrements for the Japanese men, women and children (and foreigners who've stayed in-country long enough to be affected) desperate to block out at least some of that flying pollen.

There are nasal sprays for those clogged noses; eye drops for those red, itchy eyes (remember: if it says "Cool" in English anywhere on the package, it's probably going to burn quite a bit going in). Local over-the-counter alleviators like Pabulon Z Capsule are popular, as are foreign allergy medicaments like Claritin, Benadryl, Alleve and Tavist – fruits of the West's own mighty struggles against allergies – which can be easily found locally or ordered from overseas.

Still, others insist that the simplest remedies are the best: drying clothing indoors, wearing sunglasses to block out pollen, etc. Some say the key, however, is utilizing homegrown cures like the hana ugai – literally "nose gargle" – in which sufferers stir a pinch of salt into a cup of warm water, tilt their heads back, force the contents through one nostril at a time and let the backwash drain out of their mouths. "Natural cures are always the best ones," a friend confided one hay fever season, retching mucus and warm salt water into her kitchen sink. "It looks terrible, but you have no idea how much better I feel after I finish."

A fearful sight for fearful times; not everything about springtime in Japan is pretty, after all.

Text: Jeff Lo • Images: KS

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