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Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami: How was Toyota affected?

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On Wednesday 9 March 2011 word came that an earthquake of 7.3 magnitude on the Richter scale was felt in Japan. As optimistic reports of no damage or casualties emerged, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief and turned its attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, that tremor was but a warning shot for what transpired two days later when, at 2:46 p.m. local time, a magnitude 8.9 offshore earthquake struck off the coast of Sendai (240 miles [380 kilometers] northeast of Tokyo). The biggest earthquake to hit Japan since officials began keeping records in the late 1800s, and one of the biggest ever recorded in the world unleashed a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami and was followed by more than 50 aftershocks for hours, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0. An Associated Press story by Malcolm Foster initially reported that at least 60 people died and 56 were missing, but the death toll was expected to continue to climb given the scale of the disaster. Indeed, a later report from Mr. Foster puts the casualties at 200 to 300 in Sendai city alone. Further, the tsunami that was unleashed by the offshore quake not only caused damage in Japan itself, but also brought on tsunami warnings across the Pacific and in neighboring Asian countries, impacting the Philippines, Hawaii, South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire U.S. West Coast, among others.

As to the impact on Toyota facilities in Japan, a Reuters Toyota Factbox and Hans Greimel of Automotive News remind us that the carmaker’s conscious decision to locate a number of facilities in northern Japan, with its lower population density and lower wage structure than the more centrally-located Tokyo and Toyota City areas has, in this instance, come back to haunt them. For one, numerous recent press reports have sung the praises of its newest subsidiary plant, the Central Motor Company facility in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai, open since just January 2011. Conceived as the prototype for an expected series of compact, low-cost and ultra-high efficiency manufacturing plants expected to spread throughout the world (especially in emerging markets), the facility may well be among the hardest-hit. Currently planned as the source for the 3rd-generation Toyota Yaris/Vitz for North America, the Middle East and the Japanese Domestic Market, it remains to be seen if this tragedy will somehow affect the new subcompact’s launch here.

Also affected is another subsidiary plant: Kanto Auto Works in Iwate prefecture. This center for small car production that once built the 1st-generation Lexus IS/Toyota Altezza now assembles the 4-door sedan version of the current, 2nd-generation Toyota Yaris (sold in the Japanese Domestic Market as the Toyota Belta sedan), Toyota Auris and Blade C-segment hatchbacks (Toyota Matrix alternatives for the rest of the world) and, more significantly for North America, the Scion xB and xD hatchbacks. Production has also been suspended at facilities for a couple of affiliated suppliers, namely the Toyota Motor Tohoku car parts factory (a brake and suspension component supplier) and seating supplier Toyota Boshoku Corporation. Also affected are nearby facilities for mega-supplier Denso corporation and the Toyota/Panasonic joint venture Primearth EV Energy that manufactures batteries for hybrid cars.

Toyota affiliate of sorts Subaru reports via a Reuters Fuji Heavy Industries Factbox that the company halted at 8 of its 10 factories, including all five car and car parts-related plants for its Subaru-brand vehicles in Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo, as well as at its aircraft and power products facilities in Tochigi prefecture.

This is, naturally, an ongoing story that will see many updates, either via amended versions of this story or separate follow-up Kaizen Factor stories. With a U.S. State Department travel alert strongly urging U.S. citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Japan and widespread closures and service interruptions to the country’s air and land public transportation systems, not to mention the strong likelihood of quake aftershocks for weeks to come, it is within the realm of possibility that certain new model introductions and rollouts may be impacted by these sad and unexpected developments. Japanese carmakers may well pull back from some or all new model debuts at next month’s 2011 New York Auto Show (rumored to include a concept version of the 4th-generation Lexus GS, the Toyota FT-86 II concept rebadged as a Scion, the 7th-generation Toyota Camry and 4th-generation Subaru Impreza). We mustn’t lose perspective of the fact, however, that news from the automotive world pales in significance to the tragedy that the Japanese people are currently enduring. Our hearts, sympathies, prayers and condolences go out to each and every one of them in this painful time of grief and loss.

Photo credit: Reuters

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  • Bandula Jayawardene

    My deepest sympathy for those who lost their lives and almost lost everything. I found this website only today. Please forgive me and I am very sorry that I did not find this website I feel I am very late in sympathising on the tradegy. I am sure the Japanese people definitely would have taken measures to overcome any natural disasters of this type. I can only pray and ask God to bless your country and your people in the years to come. Thank you God for answering my prayers and for the blessings on Japan and its people.

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