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Fukushima flowers fete medalists at “Recovery” OlympicsGrowers in region hit by 2011 disasters grow exotic blooms for victory bouquets
Amid the lush woodland that blankets the Abukuma mountain range in northeastern Fukushima Prefecture, a huddle of greenhouses in the foothills are filled not with vegetables or fruit, but rows of a flowering plant more commonly associated with the Americas.
The Yamakiya district of Kawamata town is one of several areas in Fukushima where, during the warm, early summer months, cultivators can be found gathering white and pink Eustoma, commonly known as lisianthus, for shipment to Japan’s cut-flower markets.
Notoriously difficult to cultivate, the tiny seeds of the lisianthus first arrived on these shores during the Meiji era (1868 to 1912), and selective breeding by growers here have yielded cultivars that have found a growing circle of admirers, even overseas, according to Nobuo Isomura, chairperson of the Nippon Flower Council.
“Fukushima growers created a particularly beautiful Eustoma,” he says.
In Yamakiya district, members of the Abukuma Cut Flower Group commenced their activities in 1989 and within two decades were shipping some 100,000 lisianthus flowers annually.
Production was halted in 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake, when mountainous tsunami hit coastal communities of Fukushima and other nearby prefectures, triggering multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant just 50 km east of Yamakiya.
When a survey was held in 2013 to find out which of the 217 farming operations in Yamakiya wanted to reconvene operations, less than 30 percent responded positively, though in reality only the eight farms making up the Abukuma Cut-flower Group actually restarted their businesses, according to the group’s website.
Indeed, radiation contamination and harmful rumors affected agricultural production throughout Fukushima. Since 2011 countless farmers were put out of business, some even taking their own lives.
According to a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report, the number of agricultural entities in the prefecture totaled just under 102,000 in 2010, but had plummeted 43 percent to 58,400 by 2018.
Output in Fukushima’s agricultural sector has also taken a heavy battering, falling 79 percent between 2010 and 2018 due to a ban on production in nuclear contaminated areas.
And while horticultural output in other parts of the disaster-affected region has shown some impressive growth since 2011, shipping from Fukushima has shrunk by 9 percent to 91 percent —21 percent lower than the national average (112 percent).
However, the impact on the prefecture’s flower farmers was less severe than growers of other fresh produce. According to Isomura of the Nippon Flower Council, this was largely because it was quickly found that flowers absorbed little cesium, one of the radionuclides emitted by the nuclear plant.
With the flowers being grown organically and inside greenhouses, Isomura insists Fukushima prefecture’s lisianthus are “safe to handle,” so much so that a rare, green cultivar has been chosen to grace the “victory bouquets” that will be handed to medalists during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Miyagi farmers have been charged with growing sunflowers and red roses for the bouquets, while Iwate growers will supply another gentian known as Rindo—like the green cultivar of lisianthus from Fukushima, a selectively bred cultivar unique to Japan, says Isomura.
Fukushima growers will also supply leaves from the narukoran lily to add a touch of green to the arrangements, which were designed by Hana-cupid Co. and the Nippon Flower Designers’ Association.
Tokyo 2020 chief operating officer Yukihiko Nunomura said he believes the bouquets will not only add color to the medal ceremonies but “will be a symbol of the progress of the reconstruction of the areas affected by the disasters.”
A spokesperson for Fukushima Prefecture’s horticulture division concurred, adding he hoped that through the bouquets foreign visitors would gain an appreciation for the wide variety of flowers cultivated throughout Japan.
“It’s exciting to have Fukushima grown produce in the victory bouquets and Fukushima alone has many flower producing areas,” he says. “I hope visitors who will come to see the baseball and softball matches hosted in Fukushima during the Games will find time to visit them and learn about Fukushima’s rich horticultural history.”
Nippon Flower Council chair Isomura believes the Olympics will also serve as an opportunity for foreign visitors to appreciate first-hand the unique Japanese sensibility toward flowers, exemplified though ikebana flower arrangement, which flourished during the 18th century and which he describes as being “akin to poetry.”
“The emotional message contained in flowers is much deeper than words,” he says, adding that each flower in Japan has an associated, unspoken meaning known in ikebana and other cultural circles as hanakotoba (flower words). “Japanese flower arrangers are extremely conscious of bringing out the harmony with the surroundings and the space in which (their creations) exist. That kind of cultural aesthetic is in our blood.”