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Sister of 1995 Hanshin quake victim thanks Emperor for poem on her sunflowers

Itsuka Kikuchi speaks to reporters in front of a monument on which the names of victims of the January 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, including her sister Haruka Kato, are written, in Kobe's Chuo Ward, on Jan. 16, 2018, while holding her daughter Ryo. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

KOBE -- A woman who lost her younger sister in the January 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated this city expressed her gratitude to Emperor Akihito for composing a poem on sunflowers related to her sister for his final traditional poetry reading ceremony on the throne.

"I'm grateful (to His Majesty) for continuing to keep the feelings of disaster victims in his heart," said Itsuka Kikuchi, 39, whose younger sister Haruka Kato, who was 11 at the time, died in the disaster. "I'd like to continue to convey the preciousness of life."

The Emperor's poem on "Haruka no Himawari (Haruka's Sunflowers)" was read during the annual Ceremony of Utakai Hajime (Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading) held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Jan. 16. It was the last Utakai Hajime event to be held during the Heisei era, as Emperor Akihito is set to abdicate on April 30.

Sunflowers grown on the premises of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as a symbol of recovery from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake are seen in this photo provided by the Imperial Household Agency in August 2014.

Kikuchi's family home at the time in Kobe's Higashinada Ward in western Japan collapsed after being hit by the Jan. 17 earthquake 24 years ago, and Haruka was the only casualty. Although she lost her life, sunflower seeds that she had been feeding a bird next door were scattered on the premises of the family home. The summer after the disaster, large sunflowers bloomed there. The sunflowers came to be called "Haruka no Himawari" as a symbol of recovery.

Kikuchi launched a campaign to distribute her sister's sunflower seeds across the country to remind the public of natural disasters and the preciousness of people's lives. She presented some seeds to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko during a 2005 ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the quake. The Imperial Couple planted the seeds in their garden at the Imperial Palace, and collected the seeds after the flowers bloomed each year.

A powerful earthquake with an epicenter in northern Osaka Prefecture jolted Kikuchi's home in Kobe's Nishi Ward in June 2018, when she was sixth months pregnant. The strong shaking of the temblor reminded her of the Hanshin quake, and she had difficulty breathing. However, she hid under a futon and tried to calm down, saying to herself, "I must protect the life inside of me."

On Sept. 7, Kikuchi gave birth to a baby girl and named her Ryo. She hopes that her daughter will grow up healthy and being loved by many. While Kikuchi's mother Mitusko passed away in 2011 at the age 61, she was able to show her father, Shiro, 76, his first grandchild. He shed tears of joy.

When Ryo is old enough, Kikuchi hopes to share the story of Haruka's sunflowers with her daughter. "It would make me happy if someday my daughter says, 'I want to plant sunflowers with you,'" said Kikuchi with a smile. "Someday, I'd like to visit the Imperial Palace to see the sunflowers (grown from Haruka's Sunflowers' seeds)."

(Japanese original by Maki Kihara, Wakayama Bureau)

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