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Sunday, March 15, 2009

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Source of trouble: A Tokyo Metropolitan Goverment worker points out the male flowers on a cedar tree at Okutama-bashi Bridge in Ome City, western Tokyo. The flowers' powdery, yellow-tinged pollen is causing millions to suffer allergic symptoms. EDAN CORKILL

WEEK 3

Sniffle, sneeze — and why's all that cedar pollen still in the air?

In 2006, Tokyo's governor declared war on the capital's allergenic forests. But what has it achieved?


Staff writer

For more than 3 million Tokyo residents who seasonally suffer from sniffly, sneezy kafunsho (pollen allergy), the sight of Gov. Shintaro Ishihara applying an ax to the trunk of a pollen-producing cedar back in 2006 was enough to bring tears of joy to their already itchy eyes.

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Air conditioning: Two of Tokyo's millions of pollen-allergy sufferers use masks to aid their plight. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO

"The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is going to do something about a problem that afflicts a quarter of the city's residents," said Ishihara (himself then a recent sufferer), before announcing that 1.8 million of the trees would be cut down over the next 10 years.

It sounded like a great idea.

"The only way to reduce the amount of pollen in the air is to reduce the number of pollen-producing cedar trees," explained one metro government Web site.

Three years later and it is becoming apparent that one important detail had been overlooked, or at least glossed over, in the hoopla surrounding the announcement. Ishihara's government doesn't own most of the trees he was referring to; private citizens do. And guess what? They don't feel like felling their trees — at least not right now.

"The main problem is that the value of the timber is really low at the moment," explained Hirofumi Watabe, the man in charge of solving the pollen-allergy problem in the metro government's Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Division.

The Tokyo government has been offering to either pay market prices for the landowners' timber (minus the costs of removing it) or to provide subsidies for the owners to cut the trees down themselves. The program is being carried out in the western reaches of Tokyo — collectively known as the Tama area — which encompass the local government jurisdictions of Ome City, Hachioji City, Akiruno City, Okutama Town, Hinode Town and Hinohara Village.

"Whether the landowners choose payment upfront or subsidies, the money is not enough," Watabe said. "Thirty years ago landowners could pocket about ¥4,000 for each of their trees. Now they're lucky to get ¥1,000," he said.

The three-decade comparison is important because it's at least 30 years since most of the trees were planted. It seems odd now, but back then, the Tama area — 30 percent of Tokyo — was home to a full-fledged logging industry.

After World War II, Japan's national government provided subsidies for owners of mountainous land to fell their native mixed forests and replant a monoculture myriad of cedars throughout the land that in the future could be harvested for building timber or burned for heat or cooking.

"Local timber industries around Japan fired the economy," explained Watabe.

But then cheaper imports began to flood the market and the value of homegrown timber plummeted. According to the Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, prices for "midsize cedar logs" (14 cm to 22 cm in diameter; 3.65 meters to 4 meters in length) peaked at around ¥40,000 per cu. meter in the early 1980s. Since then, prices have slid steadily down to their current ¥11,000.

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Counted out: Cedar trees felled in the Tama area of western Tokyo in the drive to cut pollen-allergy problems. EDAN CORKILL

"When the prices came down owners stopped harvesting their trees in the hope that timber prices would someday go back up again," Watabe said.

Most of them are still waiting.

Ishihara's 2006 plan to remove 1.8 million trees in 10 years translates into about 4,000 hectares of cedar forest, or 20 percent of the Tama total. They are currently about 30 percent behind their planned yearly targets.

It's not just the low prices that are staying landowners' hands.

"Most of the owners nowadays are dealing with trees that were planted by their fathers as an investment for them. They feel they can't just throw them away now because people in the city have an allergy," said Hiroshi Ugajin, of the metro government's Forestry Office, based in Ome.

The difficulty of convincing owners to sell their trees appears to be resulting in frustration among government workers.

Watabe stressed that even if they do succeed in cutting down 20 percent of the cedars, it is not going to solve the problem of pollen allergy.

"We're talking about an allergic reaction to the pollen. If you're allergic to peanuts, you're going to get sick if you eat eight or if you eat 10," he said.

Yoshiharu Ozawa, from the Tokyo Development Foundation for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries _ a body established to receive funds for buying timber _ pointed out that pollen may not be the sole cause of kafunsho.

"It's a combination of pollutants with the pollen," he said. "Unless you do something about the other pollutants, you won't cure kafunsho."

The more contentious point is what exactly should happen to the mountains after the cedars have been felled.

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Looking ahead: Hiroshi Ugajin, a Tokyo government forestry official, stands on cleared land in Ome City set to be replanted as mixed woodland. EDAN CORKILL

"If you replace your cedars with hardwood forests, then you are basically throwing in the towel," said Ugajin, referring to the century or more it takes before it becomes worthwhile to fell hardwood trees. "The landowners feel they won't be able to make money out of their land any more."

Although most landowners also have other jobs, they don't like the idea of neutralizing a potential asset at a time when its value is so low.

Ozawa said he thought the only solution is to make the timber industry viable again. "If the landowners can make money out of their trees, then they will be motivated to restart the planting and harvesting cycle," he said.

To that end, the metro government has started promoting "Tama-grown timber" in an attempt to encourage consumers to fork out higher prices for locally grown wood products.

However, Ugajin wasn't sure if that was a realistic goal. "If you compare the scale of the industry here to places overseas, you can see it's going to be pretty difficult for us to compete," he said, explaining that larger timber operations are more efficient.

One man who is sure what should be done is C. W. Nicol. The author, broadcaster, naturalist and Japan Times columnist currently serves on the committee of the Foundation for which Ozawa works.

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Logging on: Forestry worker Yoshiharu Ozawa, who is currently felling offending cedars in Ome City as part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government initiative. EDAN CORKILL

"All they need to do is trim and cut back some of their cedars. At the moment the trees are so densely packed that they can't grow properly," he said. "They could mix in other trees like chestnuts if they wanted, and then harvest as they saw fit in the future."

In the meantime, Watabe explains, some in the timber industry predict that the current financial crisis may result in a slight uptick in prices for local timber. The theory is that imports will drop off (helped by expected tariffs on Russian imports), thus increasing demand for the local product. But that is yet to happen.

So it seems that kafunsho sufferers have little to look forward to beyond an unpleasant, annual three-month bout of blowing runny noses and rubbing itchy eyes. The mountains of cedar currently idling so allergenically on their doorstep appear set to remain idling there for a while longer.


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