TOKYO – The weather here is turning warmer, the cherry trees are blossoming and the waiting rooms in clinics that specialize in nose and eye problems are filling up with people suffering from runny noses, sneezing and bloodshot eyes.
Tokyo is known for many things: the Imperial Palace gardens, cherry trees in the springtime, super-crowded commuter trains. But it has a more dubious distinction. It is also the world capital for allergies, especially for hay fever, known to the Japanese as pollen sickness.
Of course this is no secret to the bulk of the people living here, especially the estimated six or seven million who are prone to pollen allergies (based on general rule that 15- 20 percent of the Japanese population suffers from hay fever).
Tokyoites know that by the time the plum trees start to blossom in March, it's time to stock up on antihistamine tablets, eye drops, herbal medicines and face masks. Those most susceptible to pollen sometimes also avail themselves of allergy shots and other more exotic remedies.
One might wonder, why Tokyo? The answer goes back to just before World War II, and just after its end. In those hardscrabble years, people denuded the forests of the nearby mountains to repair burned out homes, keep warm and cook food.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Japanese government undertook a successful reforestation program, planting millions of cedars, a cheap, fast-growing native tree and a prodigious pollen producer. Unlike the US, where ragweed is the main pollen source, most of Japan's suffering is caused by cedar and cypress trees.
It was expected that these trees would be cut to produce timber, but Japan has found it more economical to import lumber from the US and Canada, so they have been left standing. Now 40 to 50 years old, they have reached their pollen producing peak, pumping literally tons of the irritant into the atmosphere.