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Seasonal allergies are so bad in Japan, firms are subsidizing tropical escapes

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TOKYO — Spring is a miserable time for millions of Japanese. One of them is Naoki Shigihara, whose hay fever symptoms make it difficult to focus at work. Luckily for him, his employer, an IT company called Aisaac, offers a “tropical escape” program, allowing employees to work remotely from other parts of the country with low pollen counts. It even offers to subsidize the temporary relocation to the tune of $1,300.

“I definitely felt the symptoms going away, and the fact of just being in Okinawa was great,” said Shigihara, a 20-year-old engineer who has taken advantage of the company’s flexible policies for the past two years by relocating to the tropical southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

“After coming back to Tokyo, my symptoms started to worsen again,” he said.

Japan’s hay fever season, which peaks from late February to mid-April, isn’t just a nuisance for those who spend all spring sneezing and scratching because of allergies. It’s a public health problem that comes with a price tag on the Japanese economy as millions of employees fall sick each spring from hay fever.

More than 40 percent of the Japanese population were believed to experience hay fever symptoms as of 2019, according to the Japan Society of Immunology, Allergology and Infection in Otorhinolaryngology. That means Japan’s hay fever-afflicted population is proportionally higher than the global average of 10 to 30 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Now, the Japanese government and some businesses are taking measures to help alleviate the allergy’s effects.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last year declared hay fever a “national disease,” saying it had “a huge impact on productivity.” A survey of private companies by the Panasonic Corporation estimated the economic losses from decreased worker productivity during allergy season at $1.5 billion a day.

About 20 percent of Japanese companies are allowing remote work during hay fever season, according to a survey by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Some, like Aisaac, are even chipping in for the costs.

The government has increased the budget for countermeasures and plans to reduce artificially planted cedar forests by 20 percent over the next decade and replace them with other trees that produce less pollen.

The severity of Japan’s hay fever problem is due to the cedar and cypress trees that were planted in Japan through a postwar reforestation program to support the country’s booming construction industry.

The trees are native to Japan but were planted at a denser concentration than they would have grown naturally, and now, cedar and cypress trees account for 28 percent of Japan’s forests, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Allergy season is starting earlier and lasting longer because of global warming, experts say, which causes cedar and other allergy-triggering trees to mature more quickly and generate more pollen. Pollen allergies are worsening globally because of climate change, with spring temperatures rising and plants releasing pollen earlier and for longer periods, according to the World Economic Forum. The cedar pollen concentration in spring 2023 reached a 10-year high in some parts of Japan.

“Hay fever allergy has a huge impact on Japanese society,” said Minoru Gotoh, professor of otorhinolaryngology at Nippon Medical School Tama Nagayama Hospital in Tokyo. “Unlike other pollen in Europe or North America which don’t spread so far away, pollen from cedar affects a much wider area because the pollen disperses over several dozens of kilometers.”

Hay fever is so common in Japan that people often say that if you’re not allergic yet, you will fall victim to it eventually.

It’s called the “cup theory” and is discussed frequently in Japanese media: The theory imagines the human body as a cup in which pollen accumulates over time, developing antibodies to fight allergic symptoms. When the “cup” overflows with pollen, that’s when you develop symptoms — like Shigihara, who was first hit with allergies two years ago.

But the theory doesn’t explain why children also suffer from hay fever, experts note. That led to the “seesaw theory,” which describes a balance your body maintains between its immune systems — one that fights viruses, and another for allergies. Overexposure to pollen burdens the allergy-fighting immune system, tilting the balance between the two systems and leading to symptoms.

Mitsuhiro Okano, professor of otorhinolaryngology at the International University of Health and Welfare Narita Hospital in Chiba prefecture, estimated that serious hay fever symptoms can impair working efficiency by more than 30 percent, making national economic loss a real concern.

Okano said that according to Japanese government data, medical treatment costs related to hay fever allergies total about $2.4 billion a year, and $264 million is spent on over-the-counter medication.

“The decline in labor productivity has the biggest impact on the economy,” Okano said. “Current measures taken by companies may be somewhat effective, but it’s still not widespread enough.”

Rina Tada, a 35-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, is among those who suffer at this time of year: Her symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, and itchiness in her eyes, throat, ears, and on her skin.

“It’s so bad that I constantly have to wear a mask, and I can’t go to sleep at night without taking medication,” she said. She uses a variety of medications to cope.

Although Tada’s employer doesn’t offer support, many Japanese companies are increasingly paying hay fever subsidies to keep workers healthy and productive during allergy season, and covering the cost of medical bills, nasal sprays, tissues, masks and eyedrops.

The “tropical escape” program by Aisaac, for example, allows employees to go anywhere with low pollen levels from mid-February to mid-April. The most common domestic destinations are the southwestern islands of Okinawa and Amami Oshima, or the northern island of Hokkaido. Some employees also go to Guam or Hawaii.

Aisaac pays employees up to $1,300 to escape from their symptoms. (Flights to the island cost between $200 and $400.)

The plan started in 2022 because the company’s chief executive suffers from serious hay fever symptoms and also needs to spend time away from Tokyo every spring, said Shihomi Yamamoto, the company’s spokeswoman. Last year, more than one-third of the company’s 185 employees participated.

Shigihara, the Aisaac employee, said he signed up as soon as he heard about it from a colleague. He deals with a persistent stuffy and runny nose every spring. He spent 10 days in Okinawa last year, four days this year, and plans to go next year.

“When I talk to people from other companies, they’re all in agreement that it’s a great idea, and many are jealous,” he said. “Almost everyone around me suffers from hay fever, and I see everyone going to hospitals, so it’s really a serious issue in Japan.”

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