Today, at 2:46 pm, Japan came to a stand-still, again. Trains and subways stopped. People did fold their hands, faced in the general direction of the northeastern coast of Tohoku, and said a silent prayer. Japan and the world marked the one year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that left whole towns razed, more than 19,000 people dead or missing, 344,000 people displaced, and a large area around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant off-limits for decades, if not permanently.
Writers often like to equate the power released by the quake to the nuclear bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Depending on who you read and believe, it was anywhere between 31,700 and 600 million Hiroshima bombs. Large parts of the coastal areas are dotted with huge, neatly stacked piles of rubble which nobody wants to take and nobody knows what to do with. The devastation was so big that it turned into an attraction on Google Earth. Considering the immense damage, it is amazing how quickly the country did rebound. On Friday, I visited what was presented to me as an emblem of the amazing turn-around, Toyota’s plant in Kanegasaki, Iwate Prefecture. Here, 1,700 employees are working overtime to build Toyota’s Aqua / Prius c, for which everybody is screaming.
“The Aqua has turned into a symbol of our recovery,” says Tetsuo Hattori, CEO of Kanto Auto Works, one of the members of the sprawling Toyota Group empire. His company is the sole manufacturer of the Aqua / Prius c compact hybrid that itself is turning into a symbol for the turn-around of Toyota. Touted as the world’s cheapest and most fuel-efficient hybrid car, the Aqua sold 13,485 units in January, the first month after its launch. It sold 21,951 in February. It could have sold many more, would the factory in Kanegasaki be able to build more. Toyota sits on 120,000 backorders for Japan alone.
The two lines in Kanegasaki have an annual capacity of 300,000 units, that comes out to 25,000 cars a month. With overtime, output can be raised to 30,000 per month. The plant made 30,000 Aqua in January, 30,000 Aqua in February and will make 30,000 Aqua in March. 24,000 of those stay in Japan. 6,000 are being exported.
The plant is supposed to make other cars than the Aqua. The Iwate plant is also responsible for the production of the Blade, Ist/Scion xD, the Belta/Yaris Sedan, and Ractis. These cars had to make way for the Aqua. All traces of these cars have vanished from the factory.
From the two manufacturing lines to the tree-lined lots where finished cars await shipment, it is Aqua/Prius c as far as the eye can see. Asked what he will do to create more capacity for the Aqua, Hattori says that production of the Ractis may be gradually shifted to the Kanto Auto Works plant in Higashi Fuji. Here, old Toyota standbys such as the Century, or the Crown Comfort, popular with notoriously overpaid Japanese taxi drivers, are being built. A look at the numbers shows that shifting production will bring no relief. It simply cements the status quo. Nevertheless, Hattori flatly denies rumors that the Aqua/Prius c might be built elsewhere than at Kanto Auto Works, or even in a different plant than in Iwate.
We are up in the north of Japan. 500 miles westward, across the sea, is Siberia. The ground is still covered with snow. That snow is “a pain in the neck,” says plant manager Kazutoshi Yoshida. He will keep 1,500 tons of the pain in the neck literally under wraps, and use water from the melting snow to cool the air-conditioning in summer. Once the snow is gone, it will be time for the goats. 12 of them do lawn care duty without using any fuel. They also “create a relaxed mood amongst our workers.” I don’t dare to ask what happens to the well-fed goats come wintertime.
A year ago, I had visited Toyota’s new plant in Ohira, 70 miles south of Kanegasaki. Back then, I had speculated that the plant may be a pilot plant. This time, that title is official. “We want to be the global model plant for compact vehicles,” says a proud Hattori, and his plant manager Yoshida says it again. The workers are highly trained, encouraged to acquire a multitude of skill sets. Workers regularly act as production engineers, providing creative solutions. “This is not something that can happen in emerging nations,” says Yoshida. In 2007, 60 percent of what this plant made was exported. Now, the rate is down to 30 percent, with further reductions likely unless the yen gets weaker and the dollar stronger. If this plant can’t export cars, at least it can export plants.
Some 50 miles from the coast, and sheltered by two mountain ranges, the plant survived the earthquake only slightly damaged. It was back up four days after the quake. Then, it had to wait for parts from less lucky suppliers. One factor in its survivability is the gas-fired cogeneration plant that can provide two thirds of the plant’s electrical power. It will be put to the test this summer. In March and April, the last two of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants will go off-line for maintenance, leaving Japan’s power grid in an even more precarious state than last summer.
Last Friday, the plant opened to outside visitors for the first time since March 11, 2011. As our plant tour draws to an end, the line stops, workers fold their hands, bow their heads, and face east in silent prayer. It is 14:26, time to remember the dead. But it is Friday, two days ahead of the anniversary.
“Tomorrow, we work with one shift,” says my guide. “On Sunday, people want to rest.“
No work on Sunday. A year after the monster quake, normalcy has returned to Japan. In this part of Iwate, at least.