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Empress Michiko's daffodils inspires Hanshin quake survivor to revive flower shop

Teruko Morimoto smiles at her flower shop in Kobe's Hyogo Ward, reopened 14 years after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)
Daffodils dedicated by Empress Michiko on Jan. 31, 1995, lie on the charred remains of a market in Kobe's Nagata Ward. The market had been burnt down by a fire following the Great Hanshin Earthquake two weeks previously. (Mainichi/Kenji Yoneda)

KOBE -- After flames swept through a market in this western Japan city in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Empress Michiko dedicated a bouquet of daffodils at the charred remains. It is this kind act that Teruko Morimoto has kept in her mind to spur herself on as she rebuilt her flower shop, consumed in the market blaze.

"I think I've been able to come all the way to this point thanks to Empress Michiko," says Morimoto, 68, smiling at her reopened flower shop, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in December this year. "I will keep making bouquets as long as I live."

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1995, Morimoto and her husband Masakazu, now 62, were sleeping in a second-floor room of their home. They were worn out by preparations to reopen their first-floor shop after a major renovation. At 5:46 a.m., the massive temblor struck, shaking Kobe and its environs and completely destroying the couple's building in the Sugahara Ichiba market in the city's Nagata Ward. The Morimotos ran for their lives. Afterwards, fire engulfed the market first opened in 1920. Their shop and all their flowers were gone.

On Jan. 31, two weeks after the disaster that killed 6,434 people, Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress visited the market area to encourage local residents. Empress Michiko placed a bouquet of 17 daffodils at a section of the burnt-down market, placing her palms together to pray for those killed and injured in the earthquake.

Morimoto watched the scene from nearby and she was struck by the purity of the moment. "I want to make bouquets again," she thought, reviving her fading dream of rebuilding her flower shop.

She lived first in evacuation centers and then at temporary housing for quake survivors, getting flowers from middlemen she had known for years on a promise to pay them later. She sold the flowers on the street, including near cemeteries. Working outside, her face turned black from the dust and soot, which she did not realize until someone pointed it out to her.

Morimoto had been a model in her 20s and was always fashion-conscious, but she stopped buying nice clothes after the disaster. Eventually the couple paid off all their debts and reopened their shop in December 2009, near a bus stop in Hyogo Ward next to Nagata Ward. "I never imagined a day like this would come," she thought to herself back then, filled with emotion.

During the "bubble" economy from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, 10,000-yen bouquets were not uncommon, and young men would buy them before meeting their dates. Plain daffodils did not attract her attention at all back then. "But Empress Michiko's bouquet, and the consideration expressed in those flowers, changed my mind," said Morimoto. Today, as the Heisei era -- which has seen repeated efforts by Their Majesties to encourage disaster victims -- approaches its end, those 17 daffodils are preserved at the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens in the city's Chuo Ward.

During the year-end season, Morimoto receives orders for memorial arrangements for Kobe earthquake victims. Even survivors who lost loved-ones have come to have new family members, and ask Morimoto to prepare flowers for school entrance and Coming-of-Age Day celebrations. The Morimotos have no heirs, and recently they often let part-time workers manage the shop, but they are determined to carry on with the business as long as they can. "I will put my heart into bouquets as Empress Michiko did," said Morimoto.

(Japanese original by Maki Kihara, Wakayama Bureau, and Kimi Sorihashi, Kobe Bureau)

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