When the pollen hits your airways and everyone thinks it’s COVID, there’s a pin badge for that.Whether you want to call it “seasonal allergies,” “hay fever,” or the Japanese term “kafunsho” (花粉症), there’s a lot of pollen in the air every spring in Japan. Normally that’s just a fact of life in Japan, and we all acknowledge that many people turn into a weepy, sniffly, sneezy, coughing mess in the early spring thanks to the curse of the Japanese cedar.
But with the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020, and what people are describing as “a particularly bad year for pollen allergies” in 2021, things have been a little awkward this year. After 18 years in Japan, I still can’t quite adjust to this culture where the fear of a stranger’s suspicious glare is even worse than the fear of death by virus. The story of the seasonal allergy badges actually started last year during the 2020 allergy season, when the pollen wasn’t quite as bad, but allergy sufferers were equally eager to let people know they weren’t sick with COVID. Some local governments even distributed a number of them free of charge. This year they’re making a comeback, with a number of designs available on Japanese shopping sites like Rakuten or Amazon.jp. The badges come decorated with images of adorably weepy bunnies and cats with irritated eyes, complete with the phrases “kafunsho,” or “It’s seasonal allergies. Not contagious.”
On my way to work the other day, just a fifteen-minute trip on the Keisei Line, a woman started coughing inside the train. Everyone stopped and looked up from their phones to stare. I felt like I could read minds by just looking at their faces, every one exactly the same.
“Is it COVID?”
She probably could have used a big old badge with a crying bunny.
The inspiration for the badges probably came from this Japanese initiative for parents during their pregnancies. The little keychains and badges say “there’s a baby in my belly,” and act as a gentle notice to strangers, even when they can’t see an obvious baby bump. The cute keychain often attracts smiles, and even offers of a seat on a crowded train.
I don’t think you’ll get any such pleasant offers when wearing a “kafunsho” badge, though.