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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Lost Rose Garden of Fukushima

Jul. 30, 2015

The rose garden of Futaba Town, Fukushima prefecture, was a source of local pride. Foreign visitors praised it, including Britain’s Prince William. It was highly regarded by The World Federation of Rose Societies. But the garden also happened to lie near the Fukushima nuclear plant. Four years ago, disaster struck. In the aftermath, with no one to care for them, the roses began to perish. The wonderland became a wasteland.

Last year, the story of the roses was commemorated in a book by an American journalist. It attracted interest both in Japan and abroad.

The garden in Futaba town was only 8 kilometers from the nuclear plant. Radiation remains high and entry to the town is prohibited. Residents are only allowed to visit for limited periods. Damaged houses have been left where they collapsed.

Katsuhide Okada, 71, owns the rose garden -- or what is left of it. It has been growing for 40 years. These days he returns to check on it every 4 months. It has been mostly untended since the meltdowns. Weeds have taken the place of roses.

We asked Okada to show us around. He pointed out the former front of the garden, and a landmark tree.

Okada’s garden was one of the largest privately-owned rose gardens in Japan. It had some six hectares of flowers and foliage. Seven thousand bushes bloomed here, with 750 varieties of roses. As the biggest tourist attraction in Futaba, it drew 50-thousand people a year.

Among the flowers, the “Old Rose” variety is said to be the most difficult to grow. The effort brings rewards in the form of bright pink petals. The “Modern Rose” variety tends to be hearty and capable of standing up to wind and rain. They effuse an aura of dignity.

On our visit, Okada was surprised to find some sickly roses still growing. He took one in his hand. “These roses now seem to want to bloom again, poor things,” he said. “I imagine they want to cry out everything. But even that might not be enough.”

Okada and his wife Kazuko now live as evacuees, about 200 kilometers from Futaba. Their home is a temporary housing unit in the city of Tsukuba. At a loss for what to do, Okada tends to shut himself up inside.

When we went there, journalist Maya Moore visited the couple. Moore collaborated with photographers to compile the book on Okada’s garden. She also sprung on him the idea of opening another garden somewhere else.

Okada declined. He says he’s not up to it right now. He is dispirited. He and his family had put everything into the garden. He had plans for his two sons to take over. But they've now had to find work elsewhere, and the family has become separated.

Resurrecting the garden would also mean relocating. But that would cost money and efforts have stalled to gain compensation from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the reactor. TEPCO told Okada in a letter that as there is no precedence for a rose garden like his, it must be considered similar to an artificial forest, which requires little care -- therefore few expenses.

Okada disagrees, and in any case, he says he has a hard time contemplating their monetary value. He was just 17 when he fell under the spell of roses. He devoted more than 40 years to the trimming and tending the plants required every day. He came to see the flowers as if they were his children. How can he calculate their value?

“It's like putting a price on my daughter,” he says. “How can you count the value of life?”

Despite the uncertainty, Okada has been encouraged by messages from people who hope he'll get back to rose-growing. Fans that used to visit the garden have held photo exhibitions across Japan. With pictures from before and after the disaster, they have tried to show what has been lost, and to expand the circle of those who care.

A Japanese man at the exhibition said, “It makes me very sad. I really want the garden to grow again.” A US visitor said, “Everybody [abroad] has heard the story about the earthquake and tsunami, but I don’t think stories like this get told -- smaller stories, stories about people."

Following the exhibitions, many people have gotten in touch with Okada. Some are fellow victims of the nuclear fallout. A woman from Namie town, in the disaster zone, wrote, “It makes me cry. I do my best to survive day by day, hoping to see your garden again.”

A man from Futaba wrote, “The tragic condition of your garden seems to show the feelings of the roses and the people of Futaba.”

Messages like have started to take root with Okada. He's beginning to think about how he might grow roses again.

“For the first time, I now understand what people actually thought about my garden,” he says. “Knowing this makes me realize I can't stay depressed. I have to cheer up.”


Journalist Maya Moore joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Aki: So why did you write this book? And why roses?

Moore: Well, there’s a couple of aspects. First of all the roses were a perfect way to describe the disaster of Fukushima. We saw the disaster of the tsunami taking away homes and lives and cars and ships, but how do we explain radiation to the people. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, there’s no color. So when I first heard about this photography instructor holding an exhibition of photos of the roses that were taken at Mr Okada’s garden before the disaster, I thought, oh this is it! This is the way to show the devastation of Fukushima, through these roses.

Beppu: Luckily the photos of the garden were there, taken before the disaster.

Moore: That’s right. Amateur photographers had been going there every year for 10 years just to take pictures of roses. And there were thousands of photographs available. And I went and looked at each one of them and pared it down finally to 157 photographs.

Beppu: And when you brought this idea to publishing houses what were their initial reactions?

Moore: They all loved the story, they loved the photographs. But of course we’re in an age where we’re moving away from books -- full-color photographs, hardcover book, nobody wanted to touch it for a while. But finally a publisher here in Japan said, Okay, we’ll do it for you, which was fantastic. But I think the real appeal of this book -- and I’m really thrilled that it’s spreading around the world -- is that all of us as humans build a garden, whether it be figuratively or literally, and of course in Mr Okada’s sense it was literal, he did build a garden, but we build our garden through our relationships and our families and our experiences and our work, and our passions. We can imagine what that would be like to have that taken away from us in an instant due to human error, and I think that is what’s so compelling about this book.

Shibuya: Now four years and four months have passed since the accident. What do you feel needs to be done?

Moore: I can’t speak for everybody, of course, but today earlier on the news they were talking about trying to get the rods out of the plant, and so of the issues -- nothing has been solved yet, and there’s an ongoing issue here, that people are starting to forget, especially here in Japan, so what I can do is by providing this very gentle story about a rose garden, I’m hoping that people will try to remember what is still going on, this devastation that has been brought to so many people.

Shibuya: And how about the garden, are there any plans to revive it maybe somewhere else, or on a smaller scale?

Moore: Well Mr Okada would like to start another garden but there are a lot of hurdles that he still has to overcome, namely trying to get compensated from TEPCO. But he really wants to start another garden for his two sons, who were so actively involved in helping their father create this garden which has been going on for over 40 years.