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Samurai Theologian in Tokyo – Hay Fever


Daniel here. Reporting for

Hay Fever, called 花粉症 (かふんしょう, lit. pollen sickness) here in Japan is a significant and growing problem. In most countries, grasses and weeds account for a large percentage of the cases of hay fever and reach their peaks in the Spring. However, the largest cause in Japan is 杉 (すぎ – sugi), which is usually translated as Japanese Cedar. Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) is actually a type of cyprus tree found in large quantities throughout most of Japan and it usually begins pollenating in January and peaks in February. And as just as the sugi pollen season dies down, the pollination of 檜 (ひのき – hinoki, Chamaecyparis obtusa), another type of cyprus, begins. So, for the poor souls, like me, who suffer from both pollens, there is an unbroken period of sniffling from late January through Golden Week (early May). Ugh.

The amount of pollen in the air varies from year to year based on factors like the warmth of the preceding summer and the natural cycle of pollination for each species. In my experience, it seems that sugi peaks about every five years or so. This year definitely seems to be an off-year, but there are still plenty of people suffering. In those peak years before I started visiting a specialist clinic, I would take an over-the-counter anti-histamine that would make me drowsy. It was miserable.

In the peak periods, I can smell sugi pollen. Most people I have spoken to are not sure what sugi smells like, so it may be that I am especially sensitive to this smell. If you have a dark paint color on your car (like I do), you can see the build-up of pollen on your car. It has a slightly yellow look to it.

What really upsets me is that the amount of suffering in Japan due to sugi is largely because of government decisions. In the period following WWII, the government wanted to plant trees that would be cheap, abundant and native to Japan for the purpose of construction. So, which tree did they choose for this role? You guess it – sugi!

Clinics specializing in nose and eye problems are crowded in this season. In addition to medicine, a common preventative measure taken is wearing masks not unlike those which you find in hospitals. And while they look uncool, they are very effective. In my first few years in Japan I refused to wear the masks and suffered for it. But when I began working at a high school, since most of the people was around were Japanese, I began to wear them. And I discovered just effective they were. So, these days, I don’t hesitate to wear them and buy them in bulk at Costco.

In particularly bad years, some people will wear goggles to keep the pollen out of their eyes. Now, I’ve never done this. I do remember in a really bad year seeing on the news people wearing ski goggles!

Another treatment that seems to be fairly effective is acupuncture, or hari. I’ve never tried this, but I’d be willing to.

Well, I do hope that you will not suffer from hay fever whether you are in Japan or any other country. But if you are, let me just say, かわいそう!