On March 11, 2011, Futaba, a sleepy Fukushima town and bedroom community for employees of the nearby No. 1 nuclear power plant, suddenly became a place known around the world — for all the wrong reasons.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing meltdowns, explosions and massive radiation leakage at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s No. 1 plant, approximately 57,000 Fukushima residents fled their homes in the prefecture, many abandoning communities they had been a part of for generations.

Katsuhide Okada, like most Futaba residents, never imagined that something so violent and wrenching could happen. Not a thought of such a catastrophe crossed his mind 50 years ago, when he began working toward his dream of cultivating a magnificent rose garden that would put Futaba on the map for tourism. He didn’t worry much about the power plant: It was so safe, Tepco told the Futaba community before No. 1 began operating in 1971, that even if a jumbo jet crashed into it, the plant could withstand the impact.

“I was in such a peaceful job,” recalls Okada, now 72. “In 1968 I opened the Futaba Rose Garden to the public. Two years later, the woman who would become my wife and business parter came to the garden and it was love at first sight.”

Okada had grand ambitions of creating a garden worthy of the land his father had entrusted to him, with its magnificent mountain setting. From the beginning, he recognized the potential to attract tourists to an area of Fukushima little known about or visited.

“I never thought of myself as a spiritual person and yet I felt I could hear the roses’ voices,” says Okada. “Roses take an entire year to blossom. They look like plants, but as someone who takes care of roses, they are like children. And that’s basically what I lost — my family.”

Okada and his wife, Kazuko, who ran the restaurant and cafe at Futaba Rose Garden, have moved five times over the past four years, shifting between relatives and friends. Now they are living in temporary housing for evacuees in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, where Okada’s only rose bush is one he could salvage because it was in a planter.

The rest of the roses that Mr. Okada cultivated over a lifetime — more than 750 varieties, nearly 8,000 bushes — have perished. Still, Okada has returned to Futaba 10 times since his evacuation to photograph the eerie decay of his gardens — work he hopes will bolster his case for fair compensation from Tepco.

Okada’s two sons used to work alongside him at the Futaba Rose Garden. Now the older son works at a supermarket, the younger at an electrical firm, checking meters. While Okada has lost his dream, his sons have lost their future, and Okada holds Tepco responsible. These were the thoughts that kept Okada up at night in the months after the disaster.

“The biggest shock was for us all to go from a life where there was always something to do.” Okada pauses. “I can’t even express the magnitude of losing Futaba Rose Garden. I can’t even express the loss.”

Okada was staying with relatives in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, when Futaba town forwarded a letter to him in April 2011 from Hidemi Kinefuchi, a member of a group called the Yokohama Photographers of Roses. Kinefuchi had been one of the 50,000 visitors each year who arrived in busloads from all over Japan at the gates of Okada’s 60,000-sq. meter (15-acre) garden. A week after the triple disaster, Kinefuchi wrote in her letter of her deep worry for the garden, which she had visited annually over the preceding decade. That someone he didn’t even know shared his sentiments brought happiness to Okada for the first time since his ordeal had begun.

“From 5 a.m. until sunset, the garden was open,” Kinefuchi recalls. “The climate was perfect for growing roses, the soil was good, the air was clean, the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures was wide, which would bring out a dazzling clarity of color, especially in early morning.

“When Mr. Okada made the ‘Path of Wild Roses,’ I found myself always going there. Since it was a bit off the beaten track, I often found myself alone. One day, Mr. Okada noticed me and we got chatting about our shared favorites flourishing here — single-petaled wild roses and the crinkly old roses. He told me that since they were not available in Japan, he had imported them from Britain.”

A long-anticipated visit by the World Federation of Rose Societies in May 2011 was to be the garden’s crowning moment, heralding its induction into an exclusive league of the world’s finest rose gardens. For Okada, it was to bring international recognition for a lifetime’s hard work.

Instead, a year after the abandonment of his garden, he was interviewed on NHK appearing grim and heartbroken as he described the death and decay of everything he had cultivated. Then he paused, to talk about how friendships forged with members of the Yokohama Society of Rose Photographers had lifted him out of the darkness.

“Hidemi Kinefuchi, one of the rose photographers, wrote me a letter a week after the disaster. I remembered her from our conversations on the Path of Wild Roses,” Okada said. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Soon after Kinefuchi’s first letter, her photography teacher, Hisako Matsuda, wrote to Okada as well, and persuaded him to include his Futaba Rose Garden photographs from before and after 3/11 in her group’s exhibitions, a project that continues to this day to build awareness all over Japan of the delights of the former Futaba Rose Garden.

“Mr. Okada didn’t copy French or English gardens. His garden was uniquely his own,” says Kinefuchi. “He thought how the Himalayan cedar trees he planted would tower years from now — he was always forward-thinking. Every year there were new surprises in the garden to look forward to.”

Maya Moore, a former news anchor and journalist at NHK, happened to catch Okada’s interview on TV and was moved to track him down. When she heard his story and about how the Yokohama Photographers of Roses had preserved thousands of his roses — if only in photo form — she collaborated with Okada and the group in putting together the book “The Rose Garden of Fukushima.”

“Mr. Okada touched me with his courage and resilience,” she says. “It’s unimaginable to go this far in life, be a master at what he does, and then lose everything in an instant. He tries to keep his humor, and doggedly pursues a future he’s not certain about. He’s a real inspiration.”

Now in his 70s, Okada is determined to start a new garden and work side by side with his two sons again. Before that, though, he must resolve the issue of compensation with Tepco, which may mean going through the courts if the company fails to pay adequately or promptly.

“One of the reasons I feel confident asking for compensation is that I feel there was nothing at fault from my side,” says Okada. “I did all I could do to build a garden that was making Futaba famous.”

Fans of Fukushima Rose Garden: www.facebook.com/pages/Fans-of-Fukushima-Rose-Garden/793596480716283. Photos from the garden are on show at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Yurakucho, Tokyo, until April 3. The Foreign Element usually appears on Tuesday, but there is no Community Page in tomorrow’s JT.

Tainted legacy: Ewan, the son of author Marie Mutsuki Mockett, stands outside Empukuji Temple in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
Tainted legacy: Ewan, the son of author Marie Mutsuki Mockett, stands outside Empukuji Temple in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. | MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT

Meanwhile, others feel duty-bound to stay

In an op-ed for The New York Times on March 14, 2011, Marie Mutsuki Mockett expressed fears for her relatives in Fukushima Prefecture and the threat to their way of life. Her family included a Zen Buddhist priest whose temple, Empukuji, in the city of Iwaki, was only 30 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was spewing high levels of radioactive material over the region in the wake of the tsunami and subsequent reactor meltdowns of March 11.

Having spent many a summer in Iwaki since childhood, soaking up her mother’s language and the peaceful coastal way of life, Mockett had witnessed many Zen rituals at Empukuji. She was spurred to write the book “Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey” as an attempt to come to terms with her family’s brave decision to remain in Iwaki even when radiation levels were worryingly high. The memoir is based on the year that Mockett spent in post-3/11 Tohoku exploring the subjects of grief, loss and mourning.

“I thought I could help Japan tell her story, reveal herself in a three-dimensional way, as a person who spends a lot of time in Japan,” says Mockett, who was born and raised in the U.S. by American and Japanese parents. Her mother’s family are no strangers to tragedy: She recalls stories of her great-aunt and -uncle leaving Nagasaki only a few days before the atomic bomb was dropped on the city in August 1945.

Like many concerned friends and family watching the nuclear accident unfold on their TV sets outside of Japan, she begged her relatives to evacuate for their own safety. But for her Zen Buddhist family, dedicated to serving their community in the best and worst of times, evacuation was unthinkable. And four years later, the Buddhist priests of Tohoku find themselves in higher demand than ever.

“They have instated a new head priest — my oldest cousin, Hiro, who will take over Empukuji,” explains Mockett. “This makes it clear to the danka, our spiritual community, that someone will continue to care for the ancestors. Our family is committed.

“Iwaki is full of temporary housing now,” she continues. “The number of nuclear evacuees has expanded. A recent housing development has increased the danka.

“Evacuees, the new residents of Iwaki, are able to use Empukuji when they cannot access their own temple in the exclusion zone,” she says, referring to the area within a 20-km radius of the No. 1 plant. “On the other hand, their presence has caused much social stress. Its hard for locals to talk about. My family tries hard simply to listen to complaints.”

As time passes, Mockett has come to realize that her family in Fukushima was really very lucky.

“Iwaki is just outside the exclusion zone. The radiation is slightly higher than what you have in Tokyo but not considered to be dangerous. They were able to do their best, serve their community and enter a new chapter in the phase of our family life and temple.”

Mockett will read from “Where the Dead Pause” on the 6th floor of Books Kinokuniya Tokyo in Sendagaya, Shibuya Ward, on March 14, 2 p.m. (www.facebook.com/events/878520565519516) Kris Kosaka’s book review: bit.ly/mockettreview
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