December 6, 2023

After Quake in Japan, a Toyota Dealer Slowly Regains Its Footing

Then came the deluge. A river of brown water and debris burst through the showroom’s glass windows. As a van and two cars disappeared under the waves, the dealership’s 22 employees raced up the stairs to the second floor — and when the water rose further, to the roof.

Still, in a town destroyed by a 15-foot tsunami, the Sendai Toyopet Ishinomaki dealership here reopened in just four days.

“In this part of the country, cars are a lifeline,” Kunihiko Sudo, the dealership’s manager, said this weekend. “You need cars to get the economy moving again. We feel a sense of duty.”

Nearly seven weeks later, it is by no means business as usual. Cellphones fill in for landlines, and after-hours paperwork is completed by candlelight. Half of the dealership’s makeshift office, above a now-empty showroom still stained with mud, is occupied by the family of an employee whose home was destroyed. Employees still talk in shock about watching the surge wash over the neighborhood, and how they used makeshift lifelines to tow a stranded family of six to safety.

But now, in the tsunami-ravaged region of Japan, people need replacement vehicles as urgently as dealers can sell them. And the Sendai Toyopet dealership’s recovery effort offers a glimpse into Japan’s broader quest for something like a return to normalcy.

Mr. Sudo recalled how the staff cheered when the dealership made its first post-tsunami delivery, a Prius, on April 1. Since then, Sendai Toyopet has sold more than six dozen vans and cars.

Even as Japan’s automakers struggle to restore their global supply and assembly operations, they are racing to meet demand from families needing to replace lost cars and businesses desperate to rebuild their damaged fleets.

At least 410,000 vehicles were destroyed in the March 11 tsunami, according to the Nikkan Jidosha Shimbun, an industry daily. The prefecture of Miyagi alone, which includes Ishinomaki, said at least 146,000 cars were wrecked.

Shipments are trickling into the worst-hit areas. On April 7, at the port of Shiogama in the heart of the disaster zone, a freighter delivered the first post-tsunami load of cars. Shiogama now receives car shipments almost every other day.

Still, Japan’s auto industry can go only so far toward meeting local demand while trying not to neglect its global customers. Toyota’s plants in Japan are now working at only 50 percent of normal production levels, and Honda’s factories are at similar levels. Nissan’s plants are producing at only 40 percent.

“Much of what we can produce, we are sending into the afflicted areas,” Shiro Nagai, a Nissan spokesman in Yokohama, said. “At the same time, we are trying to revive operations up and down the supply chain, from suppliers to dealers.”

Last week Toyota said it did not expect to return to normal production volumes before the end of the year. And on Tuesday, in a conference call with reporters, a Toyota executive said the company had only about two-and-a-half months’ worth of finished vehicles in its global inventory and remained hampered by a shortage of about 150 critical parts.

The “most critical” shortages include microprocessing units for computerized car controls, rubber items and paint additives, according to Atsushi Niimi, executive vice president for production.

With production of new cars severely restricted, other Toyota dealers in Japan have rallied to help bring vehicles to the disaster region. Soon after the tsunami, a Toyota rent-a-car service in Kobe, the city hit by its own devastating earthquake in 1995, sent 15 cars and a shipment of emergency supplies to Sendai Toyopet.

“We didn’t ask them in advance, because we knew they would be too modest to accept,” Masahiro Morimoto, a company official in Kobe, said. “We know, because we went through a similar experience,” he said.

David Jolly contributed reporting from Paris.

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