By Ellen Taleon
Heavenly spring is here again in Japan, and we are reminded of it this week because the 21st of March which is tomorrow (as of this writing), is officially called the Spring or Vernal Equinox Holiday (春分の日 or Shunbun no Hi – the day when the sun traverses the equator hence, all over the world, day is equal to night). Although that day admittedly holds a special private meaning for our family because it is my husband’s birthday, to the rest of Japan, this usually means that glorious hanami parties are also at hand. This series of wonderful events commences with a ripple-like effect all over the Japanese landscape when the first cherry blossoms emerge and reveal their ephemeral splendor to their admiring audiences. This also coincides with the graduation and sayonara parties of successful graduates who are moving on or starting anew with their lives. Or the welcoming of new students or co-workers into the fold. Thus, spring in Japan really signals the start of new beginnings. Spring seems such a heavenly season right… where flowers bloom, the weather turns mildly cool but not chilly, and men and butterflies alike rejoice at the abundance of beauty.
But if there is a silver lining in every cloud, there is also the much-quoted about anti-thesis of it, the “rain in your parade” so to speak. So in Japan, without fail, here comes the ubiquitous dreaded kafunshou or cedar pollen allergy (花粉症, literally means ailment due to the allergic reaction to pollen or more commonly known as hay fever). With the first breath of spring, comes the dreadful onset of the kafunshou symptoms. Being a foreigner in Japan, I thought at first that people get the kafunshou from the dispersed pollen from the cherry trees or sakura as they call it. Maybe my mistake was because the kafunshou season usually coincides with the blossoming of the heavenly ethereal pink ume (plum or Japanese apricot) and pink-white cherry blossoms.
I know for sure that I am not alone in this misconception when I read the post of a friend of mine telling members of our e-group not to hate the flowers for bringing on this seasonal malady. At least five of my friends, not native Japanese by all means, but foreigners of Asian origins too, but who have been staying for more than two years in Tsukuba, have this seasonal immune-triggered affliction, which is by no means fatal yet physically hampering and enthusiasm dampening.
On a self-imposed mission, I sought to find answers to this incredibly random-selective ailment, which explains why I do not know the criteria for getting it. Feeling lucky, being asymptomatic myself, but obliged to find out more, I went on a fact-finding cyber trip. Pray tell me, what is the most convenient and accessible means to know things for free, except through the technological innovation of the 20th century, the marvelous Internet? So Internet surfing I went. And, basing on my limited surfing finds and my friends’ experiences, here goes my five cents worth of dissertation on the legendary kafunshou.
And lo, what I found out was that kafunshou in Japan is not the same hay fever as in North America, England or somewhere else, but should be termed more accurately as Sugikafunshou or an ailment arising from an allergic reaction to cedar pollen. Sometimes, people also get allergic reactions to the Japanese cypress pollen.
While the more common hay fever strikes other places of the globe in autumn or fall, in Japan, the sugikafunshou makes people miserable in late winter to early spring. Sugikafunshou falls under the category of the tree pollen allergies which strike in late winter to early spring. In other parts of the world, grass allergies can strike from spring through summer, and ragweed (which causes “hay fever”) typically strikes in the fall. See: http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=55042.
Now that makes some sense doesn’t it? But still doesn’t get us where we want to go, which is how to relieve the misery right? By the way, one way to find out if it is common cold as opposed to allergy is that with the former, you experience it in stages: such as first sneezing, then congestion, finally runny nose and fever, the latter occurring only if there is an infection. While in the latter, you do not always have a fever which is fine, but all of the symptoms of the common cold will appear to torture you at once for as long as the presence of the allergen continues, which doesn’t sound comforting, I suppose.
In the medical world, doctors refer to it in technical terms such as “allergic rhinitis” (See: http://www.medicinenet.com/hay_fever/page2.htm), defined as caused when your own antibodies (Immunoglobulins) declare war with and attack an otherwise harmless allergen which comes inside your nostrils/nasal lining or in contact with your eyes, etc. During the war between your antibodies and the antigens, some bystander cells which become injured release some strong chemicals, notably histamines, which produce the symptoms of itching, swelling, irritation and leaking of the cell walls. These allergens are dry protein particles commonly called pollens which come from trees, hays, grasses, etc.
Since there are also different kinds of allergenic substances that you can be allergic to, if you go to a doctor or to a jibika (Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist / otolaryngologist’s clinic), he/she will give you a skin test or various other tests, to determine which allergen you are allergic to. The test is usually done on the skin to identify the allergenic substance (the allergen) that is the trigger for that miserable allergic reaction and results will be based on your skin’s reaction.Then the desensitizing treatment will consist of gradually exposing you to the allergen so that your body will become desensitized, meaning it will realize that the allergen is not a threat after all and so cease to manifest an antibody reaction.
According to a survey performed by My Voice, as mentioned by Ken Yasumoto Nicolson in his February 25, 2007 column entitled, “Hay fever sufferers in Japan and prevention”, which can be read from his blogspot, http://WhatJapanThinks.com, out of the total sampling size of 16,259, at least 47% of the respondents said that they had serious symptoms (12%), mild symptoms (26.5%) and those who had before but not anymore (8%). The respondents’ major source of information (multiple answers) about kafunshou is television (78.2%), internet (42.9%), newspapers (34.5%), doctors or pharmacists as the fourth choice only (33.7%) and word of mouth (30.9%). Does this mean that radio personalities are now more believable than doctors? Or is it because people with kafunshou do not really think it is serious enough to warrant going to a specialist? This could also explain why people use more of over-the-counter items such as eyewash or eye drops (42%), masks (39.7%), instead of prescription medicine as the third choice only (36.4%), sweets or gum (31.5%), over-the-counter internal medicines (28.9%) and over-the-counter nasal sprays or drops (24.8%), anti-hay fever food or drinks (20.5%), air filter (19.8%) at the top of the list.
To asymptomatic individuals like me, kafunshou pales in comparison to the much-dreaded seasonal flus (Influenza A or B) or the notorious noroviral gastroenteritis stomach ailments which sometimes (when they reach epidemic proportions as they usually do) temporarily shut down some schools all over Japan. But to some unlucky few, it sure makes life a little bit complicated doesn’t it? But worry no more. Who knows, doctors may find some break-through medicines or technology that will help put this mild irritation at bay. In the meantime, your local otolaryngologist will help relieve your misery a little bit. With such a mouthful for a title, the expert doctor must know a lot of medical techniques and must have stored a lot of expert knowledge to deserve such a title, don’t you think so too?
(Author: Ellen Taleon, Originally posted in the April 2007 issue of
the Alien Times)