Japan is well on its way to recovery from the March 11 earthquake that rocked the country’s northeastern region and generated a tsunami that swept clean swathes of the coast. Automotive output is recovering; between them, Honda, Nissan and Toyota plan to hire over 5,000 temporary workers in an attempt to catch up, which feeds back to help the rest of the economy, as well as the Tohoku earthquake region where Toyota's newest plants are located. But a second and wholly man-made disaster now threatens the return to normalcy.
Despite the magnitude of the March temblor, Japan was well prepared. Few deaths stemmed from buildings collapsing, trains stopped automatically, and factories were relatively unscathed. As roads were reopened and utility service reestablished, the auto industry was ready to resume output. And all along most of the economy trundled on; despite the horrendous scope of damage, the impact of 25,000 deaths and the total destruction of a swathe of coastal land in a society of 127 million is limited. Rapid recovery seemed certain, as was the case after not merely the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake which struck almost direct under Kobe, but even the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which destroyed the Tokyo metropolis.
The auto industry was a hiccup in that process. Today's cars are hi-tech products, and the supply chain is correspondingly complex. Let one example suffice. Making a semiconductor chip takes two months from start to finish, and the ceiling fell in ― literally ― at a plant where an invisible speck of dust results in a bad part. Doing basic repairs, getting the clean room clean again, and then debugging machines is a multi-month process. Given the uniqueness of the chips, symptomatic of their "hi tech" nature, it was just as difficult to transfer manufacturing to a different facility, despite excess capacity elsewhere. Japan is a big place, however, and a river of engineers poured in to help. As a result, even the Renesas' "fab" is back in production, albeit at reduced rates.
The global industry remains vulnerable to disruptions; factories are prone to be unique. One reason is that the industry has not settled upon standards–though a July 26 article noted a new effort in that direction. [See a Japanese-language article in Sankei on a METI-coordinated committee on the issue. It cites Toyota saying that by 2013 they might be able to start purchasing under joint standards, but such standards would not apply to more than 30% of semiconductors.] Part is that things are evolving too fast. But firms also view chips, specialty steels, paints, engine parts, and now batteries as strategic. And there are no institutions in place: the old standard-setter, the Society of Automotive Engineers, is a shadow of its former self. With little commonality, dual-sourcing is not an option, magnifying risk.
Hindsight is not foresight. It's impossible to take into account (much less insure against) every eventuality. While a few mayors along Japan's coast had insisted on unusually high flood walls ― maybe reflecting (possibly corrupt) ties to the construction industry rather than prescience ― disaster scenarios didn't anticipate the magnitude of the tsunami. That increased the human cost, even if relatively few plants were located on the coast: most were inland, where land was cheaper
One exception was power plants, which needed access to water for cooling. We all know about the destruction of a set of four of the six nuclear plants at Fukushima I. Less known is that the Onagawa nuclear plant, run by Tohoku Electric Power, was both directly hit by the earthquake and by a higher tsunami; after all, an idle but undamaged plant isn't "news". However, it was of a modern design, on higher ground, and better managed ― and shut down without problems. Even more telling, a second set of four reactors, the Fukushima II complex, were also effectively unscathed. Yet the Onagawa plant and the other well-run utilities with intrinsically safe nuclear plants are being tarred and feathered by TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power). In the background not-in-my-backyard politics at the local and prefectural level made construction of new electric generation capacity of any sort a slow process. So there is little excess capacity, exacerbated by the division of the country into incompatible power grids. Every power plant has to be brought back online if the country is to avoid brownouts for the years to come.
Unfortunately, Japan now suffers from a second earthquake, entirely man-made. The disaster now unfolding reflects politics.
Why? Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), facing a divided Diet (parliament), was too quick over the past year to offer compromise to the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). (Perhaps that reflects his background as a community activist and lawyer, where the key skill is being able to hammer out compromises where common interests are central.) In the process, he alienated many in his own DPJ, without ultimately gaining the cooperation from the LDP that he needed to pass legislation. Then, under pressure from all sides, Kan struck off on his own with a populist measure to keep all nuclear power plants closed once they shut down for maintenance under a routine 13-month cycle. Within a year, then, all will be closed and remain off-line. Most are of the more modern Onagawa design, but they may now never be permitted to resume operation despite providing 30% of Japan's electricity. The economic impact of this will be huge and last for years, even as the economic disruption from the Tohoku earthquake itself ends.
Still, it is useful to remember the basic competitiveness of the auto industry, with multiple suppliers and assemblers following a wide array of strategies. Contrast Nissan, relatively unaffected by the quake, with Toyota. Twenty-five years ago Nissan began moving its production inside Japan to Kyushu, 1,500 miles south of the quake's epicenter, while reducing capacity in the Tokyo region. [Nissan had also been planning to boost output and so had built up inventories of chips and other items with long lead times before the quake struck on March 11th, so there was an element of luck involved, too.]
Toyota's strategy was different. It had acquired Kanto Jidosha and Central Jidosha in the Tokyo area in the 1950s, which together with Toyota Auto Body account for 30% of the company’s Japan-based output. In the 1990s, rather than paring capacity, they added plants to the northeast of Tokyo ― right where the earthquake struck.
That extra capacity left Toyota vulnerable to a second earthquake: an appreciation of the yen, at ¥78.5 per dollar as I write this, over 50% stronger than the ¥121 level of July 2007. With the extra capacity, and a commitment to pay employees whether there was work or not, Toyota increased its dependence on exports; Nissan did not. Toyota also has a byzantine web of domestic subsidiaries, a structure as unwieldy as the General Motors of old, with internal politics to match. So domestic production was attractive not only to alleviate union pressure but to protect the turf of incumbent executives and middle managers.
Now the earthquake itself will have a fleeting impact. Japan is after all a large place, with 127 million people. Horrific as 25,000 deaths may be, that and accompanying losses to the capital stock are tiny relative to the size of the economy. Capital can be fixed, and the size of the economy makes that relatively straightforward: a cumulative 4,200 engineers and other skilled workers poured in from the rest of the domestic semiconductor industry to revive production at the Renesas plant. The same story applies to electric power lines, roads and bridges, and other infrastructure, including the Sendai airport that was but recently under water. Many farmers were unable to plant this year's rice crop, the fisheries industry is only partially functional, and tourism is dead -- and all are important to the rural Tohoku region. But Toyota's plants are running again, and those of their suppliers.
Yes, the Tohoku earthquake was a disaster, as is the ongoing rise of the yen. The impact of both is amplified by dysfunctional politics ― electoral and corporate. Nevertheless, the industry as a whole is remarkably robust: its size and the variety that comes from rivalry lessens the impact of even major disasters. Toyota may be hit, and its recovery will be far slower than most observers seem to believe. A few American consumers may be disappointed, Toyota's U.S. dealerships moreso. But the global industry will hardly notice.