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Saturday, April 9, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

2005: A sneeze odyssey


As she springs toward her second half-century of life, my always-young wife is afraid of but one thing.

No, the answer is not the Kanto super-earthquake, a North Korean missile or even a head full of gray hair. These potential doomsday scenarios she shrugs off -- or, in the case of the hair, shrieks off -- with relative knock-on-wood ease. For there is another fate far more genuine and thus far more wretched.

Here's a hint: From the middle of March our tiny home has been ankle deep in tissue papers.

"Do not," my wife begins, "make fun of . . . my . . . ka . . . ka . . . FUN SHO!"

This last word she does not speak, she sneezes. And just as quick, one more spent tissue hits the floor.

Yes, my wife has fallen victim to Japan's insidious cedar pollen, or some near-enough cousin. For the first time in her life, she has "kafun sho" -- hay fever -- and fear it she does.

For she is miserable. Plus the prospect of having to endure this each and every spring is driving her -- and me -- nuts. Because she will not just sit there and sniffle. No, she has decided to fight.

Every flat surface of our house -- those not blanketed by tissues -- gets scrubbed down every day. People who enter from outdoors must wipe off their jackets, and -- if that person be a husband -- he gets shoved into the shower at once. Eyeballs get washed. Throats get gargled. Windows get wedged shut and curtained up tight. All to eradicate pollen.

So there she sits . . . my cute Japanese wife . . . with her eyes rheumy, her nose raw, her nasal passages smeared with mentholated cream, her ever-ready mask perched crookedly on her head, and her teeth clenched to the point of snapping.

"If you think I'm going to give in, then you are mis . . . mis . . ." Then she sneezes. And another tissue hits the floor.

Now isn't this cruel? Old Man Winter has fled to be replaced not by the Nymph of Spring but by the Pollen Hag From Hell. It somehow reminds me of the time my wife baked the yummiest-looking chocolate cake ever for one of our boy's birthdays, only -- at the point where he was supposed to puff out the candles -- to have the kid spit up on it instead. A letdown, to say the least.

My poor wife thus owns my sympathy, but not my comisery. For though I have endured kafunish moments now and then, they are nothing like hers. I also admit that I often enjoy a good sneeze. Somehow it seems to clear my brain.

"Ha!" she snorts. "It takes less than a sneeze to clear YOUR brain. A quick blink is all you need." This thought tickles her so much that she is forced to give a sneeze herself. In fact, six in a row. Clearing her brain all over my shirt.

I don't mind . . . so much. What bugs me, however, is why I put our family savings into mutual funds when I could have sunk it all into hay fever masks. That's where the big bucks lie.

A ride on a commuter train is indicative of the kafun sho state of this nation. More people are wearing masks than at a Halloween party. With pinkish, scratched-out orbs for eyes, they look scarier too. Almost as scary as the high school boys who are twisting tissues up their nostrils.

But no amount of masks or tissues can keep the close-quartered crowd from hacking, sniffling and coughing nonstop. If kafun sho was catching, the Japanese credo would be "One nation, under snot."

Scientists say this year's pollen count is perhaps 30 times worse than last year's. They say the count goes up, too, almost every spring. They say maybe 20,000 tons of pollen may be floating around out there right now, with each and every one of those little devils just dying to fly up your nose. They say the cedar trees are all laughing at us.

To find out whether or not this was true, I spared no expense and went out and interviewed an expert. Not a pollen expert, mind you, but a film expert. For the purposes of this column, I figure it is close enough.

So here's what film critic, fellow Japan Times columnist, my (sort of) neighbor and -- most importantly -- kafun sho sufferer, Mark Schilling, had to say about this season's assault on the nasal cavities. As you will read, I pulled no punches with my questions.

ME: Mark, is it true that the Japanese movie industry will soon be making horror films based on kafun sho?

SCHILLING: (Several sneezes, followed by assorted coughs and then repeated sniffles.)

ME: Furthermore, is it also true that the best way to soak in a movie is to wind the film around your head and then dunk it in the bath?

SCHILLING: (Short, staccato-like coughs, similar to popcorn popping, followed by a sneeze, a wheeze and the shout, "Geez Louise!")

ME: And can I say that it is a fact you will pick up the tab for today's coffee?

SCHILLING: (A quick shimmer of watery eyes and then one enormous goose honk into a thick wad of tissues.)

What can I say? He is an eloquent man. But the last word on kafun sho must belong to my wife.

"I know!" she says. "We'll go find the cedar trees and kill them all!" In her hand, she holds a knife.

A butter knife. At this point I feel the need to scrape some of her brains off my shirt and try to scoop them back in. Yet it just goes to show the heavy toll kafun sho can take on normally gentle people.

But I remind her that it could be worse.

"How?" she begs. "Tell me how?"

"Well, after all" (drum beat, cymbal clash and tip of the hat) . . . "it could be me."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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