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"Kafunshou" - Hayfever in Japan

Sales of goggles, masks, tissue paper, antihistamines and decongestants are about to soar in Japan, probably from next week. March is around the corner and so therefore is hay fever season. The morning and evening news broadcasts will even mention pollen levels...

Why? During the second world war Japan's forests had been severely depleted. Vasts swathes of forest had been cut, not only for lumber but also for fuel. In the early postwar period many motor vehicles were still powered by charcoal burners. With the cities stilled burned out, there was enormous need for construction materials, and not enough foreign exchange available to import the require timber. At the end of the occupation the government sponsored an aggressive reforestation program, aiming to solve the problem by planting some 4.5 million hectares in the 20 years to the early 1970s. The vast majority of the seedlings were planted in monoculture plantations.

As Japan's economy recovered, it became cheaper and more efficient in terms of resource allocation to import timber from North America, Russia, Australia and New Zealand etc. With little harvesting of trees, the newly maturing plantations were not being managed, and the result is a monoculture of trees, mostly of similar age, maturing after 20-30 years and releasing clouds of pollen. As more and more trees planted in the early 1970s reached maturity, the problem has become worse. The amount of pollen in the air is also being influenced by global warming. Most Japanese forests are in mountainous areas (80% of Japan is mountainous) and the snow and tree lines have risen considerably in the last 100 years, speeding up the growth of cedars and cypress to the point where some are producing pollen after less than 15 years.

There are now an estimated 20 million hay fever allergy sufferers, a number that seems to be growing with pollen levels continuing to rise. Apart from a lot of navel gazing, not much is being done about it. Instead of spending public funds to harvest the plantations (perhaps even turning the plantations into diverse forests over time), the situation has been largely left to deteriorate. There have been some projects - a limited amount of funding (approximately 10 billion yen) was allocated by the forestry agency to be used as subsidies to pay for the harvesting of publicly owned cedar trees in plantations close to large population areas.

One group that has responded is business. Every possible product that could help alleviate the symptoms is a guaranteed money maket, and so masks, goggles, eye drops, oral medicines, herbal products, special screens to fit to windows etc are being heavily promoted in the local shopping centers. Research institutes have estimated the profits from these products to exceed 80 billion yen this year.

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