A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Tsukuba Dust Bowl- Instead of Comforting, this Year`s HARU ICHIBAN (春一番)- the First Warm Gusts of Spring – Darken the sky AND the Mood

mt Tsukuba obscured by dust

Mt Tsukuba obscured by dust

By Avi Landau

After months of  uncomfortable and sometimes bone-chilling air temperatures, those of us living in Japan eagerly anticipate the HARU ICHIBAN (春一番)- the first warm winds of spring which blow when a low pressure zone forms over the Sea of Japan and draws up some tropical air which sweeps across the archipelgo. This usually occurs sometime  before the spring equinox which this year (2013) will fall on March 20th. This wind, with its characteristic feel and small is usually quite heartening- giving us a taste of the warmth and blossoming to come. In past years I have found it to be soothing to the body AND the soul.

February 2, 2017 driving through Matsushiro

February 2, 2017 driving through Matsushiro

But despite the fact that today was the HARU ICHIBAN, offically acknowledged by the Meteorological Agency of Japan, the atmosphere it created was far from pleasant- in fact the mood reminded me a bit of what it was like in Tsukuba just after the accident occured at the nuclear power plant in nearby Fukushima Prefecture in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Just like back at that time people avoided going outdoors- and if they did they wore masks- and not just the cheap masks usually worn by the Japanese to prevent catching or giving colds- but more sophisticated and expensive looking ones.

Why? Foremost on people`s minds when they think about the air quality is the problem of tiny particles of pollution which have been blowing over from China. These are so small that most masks will not prevent you from inhaling them into your lungs where they can possibly lead to serious health problems.  Many appeared very concerned about these particles.  I however ,felt particularly safe from that threat today (mistakenly perhaps)- because the strong and continuous gusts were blowing in the opposite direction: towards China.

Whether or not today was a good or bad day for PM 2.5 ( the name of the dangerous pollutant), there were other reasons the wind was causing stress.

In recent years, the coming of spring has become an ordeal for many- specifically those who suffer from hay fever. In Japan, this ailment is most often triggered by cedar pollen in the air- and their are PLENTY of cedar trees which were planted en masse all over the country after the terrible deforestation which occurred right up to the end of WWII. Today I heard some people say they could actually SEE the pollen in the air.

I`m not sure if this was just their imagination or not, but anyway something definitely was visible in the air- dust and soil- whipped up by the winds- and probably containing plenty of radiocative particles which which have landed around here since the nuclear accident.

And besides the health concerns, it was the SCENERY created by the that disturbed me most- driving through Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods today was a truly HAUNTING experience, reminding me of certain  pictures I had seen in history books.

The 1930`s in the US were not only a time of failed businesses, widespread unemployment and homelessness, but also of environmental diasaster. In fact, THE most iconic images of the years of The Great Depression are not of shuttered up shops or investors who had lost everything jumping out of sky-scraper windows, but black and white photo`s of the apocalyptic-looking dust storms which raged in the mid-western farm regions (especially the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas which came to known as The Dust Bowl). The clouds of whipped up soil which darkened the skies making people believe that the end of the world was at hand, were brought about by drought, wind AND the misuse of land.

Dust Clouds in Tsukuba march 2009

Dust Clouds in Tsukuba

That is why I got THE CHILLS today in Tsukuba, when in an economic climate which more than anything else I have experienced in my life-time evokes images of The Great Depression (empty buildings, shuttered up shops, mass lay-offs etc), the sky was actually DARKENED BY CLOUDS OF DUST. I thought I had driven right into the cover of a Woody Guthrie album.

Dust Bowl

Dust Bowl

Yes, March is always the windiest time of year in Tsukuba (and unlike today, these winds are usually frosty!), and soil is often blown into the air. What has made things worse than anything I have ever seen in this area, though, are the huge tracts of deforested land which await being turned into housing developments (though these might have to wait a while as not many people are in a position to buy right now).

The Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl

Don`t get me wrong. I am not comparing todays weather conditions in Tsukuba to those which created the Dust Bowl. And the economy here  still seems to be much better than it is in other parts of Japan (in fact a drive through the shuttered up old shopping districts of our neighboring cities will show you that we Tsukubans are enjoying relative boon times!).

Still ,  todays unusual HARU ICHIBAN weather , coupled with the current economic climate, evoked historical associations in me which sent a shiver down my spine. I hope we can all pull through these rough times together, though Im not even sure if its worth the try- with the threats to our health posed by radiation, pollen and pollutants If not, many of us will be singing the words to that great Dust Bowl Ballad which goes- So long, its been good to know ya ……… got to be drifting along……..


  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    For me dust in Tsukuba this year was much smaller scale to compare when I first visited Tsukuba 40 years ago, at that time there were so many construction works, for more than 50 of national Institutes etc.Also there were so wide field for preparing plants like spring wheat or potato etc.

    PM 2.5 from China, from 1964-1980 I had much worried about radioactive particle from China during those years China frequently did Nuclear bomb tests more than 46 times, there came radioactive particles riding on Westerlies to East including Japan.

    From East, 1946-1958 US nuclear-bomb-tests radiation-contaminated tunas those caught in the Pacific Ocean almost came to tables of Japaneses.

    I don’t like PM 2.5 too. The human race experienced them like in 19th century’s London or 50 years ago in Tokyo, Yokkaichi, I hope Chinese cleverness to solve this problem near future. Pollen and dust it is just seasonal things for pert fellow like me. I hope some bright Immunologists find the best way to prevent.

    Your photo of Dust Bowl in ’30 USA was so awful that teach us so bad humane treatment of land caused so bad results. Thank you for your article, made me consider many thing!!

  • Woody says:

    The dust clouds swirled once again in Tsukuba 2017… this time, the 1930s like landscapes they created
    seemed more ominously appropriate than recent years… with the revival of those popular social-political movements of the 1930s… nationalism… racism… ethnocentrism… accompanied by plenty of frustration… anger… and hate