Yosei Ninomiya prepares for the arrival of spring much earlier than most people each year, beginning as soon as the new year holiday season comes to a close.
By mid-January, the employee in the sales promotion division at Tokyu Hands’ Shinjuku branch is busy putting the finishing touches on a section dedicated to hay fever products. For its 2014 collection, the retailer has assembled more than 100 types of masks, 100 types of glasses and a total of 300 products related to pollen.
Some of the products, like Kowa Co.’s Sanjigen Ko-micchaku Masuku (three-dimensional high-adherent masks), utilize the latest technology to help protect users from hay fever. They are able to prevent users from breathing in particles as small as 0.1 of a micrometer while also keeping their throats hydrated. They come in three different sizes, Ninomiya explains. What’s more, Kowa has a selection of masks that exude rose, jasmine, lavender, chamomile and bergamot scents.
The array of masks in stock is impressive. One particularly striking item on display is a “string-less mask,” sold for ¥351, that utilizes adhesive components to stick it to a user’s face instead of having bands that hang around the ears.
The most bizarre product, however, is a mask that is infused with antibodies taken from ostrich eggs, which the manufacturers claim helps prevent allergic reactions by inactivating the pollen. These masks are on sale for ¥427.
“Many of the latest anti-pollen masks come with technology that also reduces PM2.5,” Ninomiya says, referring to concern over the smog from China that contains particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers. “This seems to be the trend for this year’s pollen season.”
The best way of fighting hay fever is to avoid coming into contact with pollen in the first place. Hay fever is caused by an allergy to pollen (the fine powder that is produced by plants to fertilize other plants of the same species).
The immune system of hay fever sufferers reacts to the pollen. Cells on the lining of the nose and eyes release histamine and other chemicals when they come into contact with pollen. In turn, common hay fever symptoms occur, including a runny, itchy and/or blocked nose, sneezing and itchy eyes.
Pollen from ragweed is the main source of hay fever in the United States, while grass pollen is responsible for most of the symptoms in Europe. Pollen from cedar and cypress trees are the principal source of hay fever in Japan.
“Recent reports on the news are predicting that we will experience less than average amounts of pollen in the air this year, but it’s probably too early to tell,” Ninomiya explains. “Some of our customers are already claiming that their symptoms are worse than usual.”
Next to the rows of masks at Tokyu Hands are anti-pollen glasses, which are designed to completely cover the user’s eyes. Until a few years ago, earlier prototypes of the glasses resembled swimming goggles; recent models have become less obvious, with most of them having the appearance of a normal pair of glasses but with higher edges around the eyes to guard against pollen intrusion.
For those who wish to minimize pollen intake without being noticed, Tokyu Hands also offers Clonitas products, which use chlorine dioxide to remove viruses, pollen and unpleasant odors within a 1-meter radius. The card-sized Clonitas products can be worn in a neck strap.
For the extremely sensitive sufferers who are seeking a complete shutout of pollen, there is the Nose Mask Pit, which is sold for ¥651. The nose plugs are shaped like fingertip-sized swimming goggles with two plate-shaped parts inserted in each nostril. It uses transparent material at the bridge of the nose to make wearing them less obvious.
Nasal irrigation kits, which allow users to clean the inside of their nose with a saline solution, are another option, selling for ¥2,500. Meanwhile, the most expensive product in the lineup at Tokyu Hands is a portable air purifier that hay fever sufferers can wear around their necks, which comes at a price tag of ¥9,500.
Ninomiya says demand for anti-pollen products continues beyond March and April.
“In May, this corner of the store is turned into a section featuring sunscreen and products protecting against UV. Then, as high summer approaches, we bring out products related to the prevention of heatstroke,” Ninomiya says.
Spring and the hay fever season come to an end only then, in May, when the 300 related items are finally removed from the shelves for storage.
In March 2005, then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara opened his weekly news conference by saying that he had, at age 72, become allergic to pollen.
“I thought I had caught a cold, but it turned out to be hay fever,” Ishihara told reporters. “I’ve never experienced this before.”
The governor would get visibly cranky during the pollen season in later years, at times warning reporters he wouldn’t answer any “worthless” questions because he was in a bad mood.
However, the conservative politician was also quick to take action, pushing forward a plan in 2006 to reduce the number of pollen-emitting cedar trees in the capital’s Tama region and replace them with varieties that would emit less allergic substances.
Interestingly, Ishihara is not the only politician to suffer from hay fever symptoms. A group of bipartisan lawmakers at the Diet, calling themselves “Hakushon Giren” (Achoo Caucus), has since the mid-1990s continued to promote measures against the annual annoyance. Some studies show that as many as 30 percent of all people in Japan are affected. According to a recent estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the public spends about ¥160 billion every year to fight off their allergies.
As a result of the political lobbying, the Education Ministry has promoted the use of wood in the construction of schools and other buildings — a directive that has sped up the consumption of trees that release pollen.
The government’s Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute has also cultivated a special fungi that coats cedar trees, thereby preventing them from emitting pollen.
However, it’s likely to take years to consume all the cedar trees that were planted when reforestation policies were introduced after World War II. Cheaper timber imports throughout the 1970s and ’80s replaced cedar trees in terms of market share, leaving the robust domestic trees — which have a lifespan of 100 years or so — free to flourish. Peak production of pollen occurs in cedar trees of 30 years or older, and it continues at the same level throughout the remainder of its life.
The government-led initiative to replace regular cedar trees with varieties that do not emit pollen has moved forward at a snail’s pace. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi revealed a gut-wrenching projection at a committee hearing at the Diet in May 2013.
“If things continue at the same pace,” Hayashi said, “it could take more than 100 years to complete the transition.”
Complicating the matter, cedar trees are ubiquitous across Japan, except for some locations in northern Hokkaido and the Amami islands in Kagoshima Prefecture.
In fact, the town of Kamishiohoro in Hokkaido promotes itself as a “pollen resort,” working with travel agencies to create a tour that allows people suffering from serious allergies the opportunity to be free of worries by spending time in the town.
“Whether one has an allergic reaction to pollen depends on one’s overall health, their environment, the amount of pollen released by cedar trees and other factors,” says Toshihiko Oba, an otolaryngologist at Keiyu Ginza Clinic in Tokyo. “The level of smog in the city can also trigger a reaction to pollen for anyone.”
Foreign nationals who have never had hay fever can come to Japan and experience the symptoms for the first time, Oba says.
“Children are beginning to show symptoms from a younger age, but older people who were once thought to be more immune to allergies are also beginning to suffer from hay fever,” he says. “It could affect anyone on any day.”
If nose plugs, masks, portable air cleaners and nasal irrigation disinfectants don’t help alleviate the symptoms, the only viable option — bar moving to small towns in northern Hokkaido permanently — may be seeking specialized medical treatment with an otolaryngologist.
“The number of patients we treat reaches its peak in early to mid-March on a typical year, but it really depends on the weather conditions,” Oba says. On a particularly pollen-heavy day in a bad year, he might treat as many as 300 patients a day.
The first step in curing hay fever often begins with using second-generation antihistamine tablets, which work better when patients begin treatment before they come in contact with allergy-causing pollen. However, prescription drugs often have side effects such as drowsiness and glaucoma.
If the tablets fail to alleviate the symptoms, patients would go on to use antihistamine drugs that contain steroids, but hyposensitization treatments, a popular treatment in Europe, could become more popular in the near future.
In this treatment, patients are given small doses of pollen extracts via injection or drops into their mouth, which helps prevent the body from overreacting to pollen.
If this also fails to work, Oba brings out his heavy artillery: laser treatment, which strikes at the very root of the problem. A laser is inserted into a patient’s nose, which burns off the mucous membrane that causes the allergic reaction.
Until recently, Oba’s clinic used a carbon dioxide laser to disengage the membrane. In January, however, the clinic introduced a semiconductor laser worth ¥10 million.
Whereas the carbon dioxide laser burns the membrane “well-done,” the high-tech semiconductor laser instantly cooks it to “medium-rare,” Oba says.
The new laser system can also disregard mucus in the nasal passages because it can burn through fluid (unlike the carbon dioxide device), Oba says. This enables patients that are already suffering from symptoms — like a runny nose — to visit the doctor and receive the laser treatment.
The latest laser treatment is mostly painless and draws no blood. Patients are usually allowed to return to their daily routine immediately after the procedure, which costs about ¥10,000 (for patients with health insurance) as well as additional costs for pre-surgical tests. Unlike antihistamine tablets, it seldom triggers any side effects and results can last for a year or two.
Although the number of options for treating hay fever has increased in recent years, Oba says it is important for allergy sufferers to begin treatment as soon as possible — not after symptoms worsen.
“I think Japan is leading the way in terms of nose surgeries and treatments, plus we have major companies such as Olympus that are globally known for medical equipment such as endoscopes,” Oba says.
“I am confident that Japan’s clinics can provide the best service to anyone, even those from overseas that experience hay fever symptoms for the first time in Japan,” he says.