SENDAI – Manufacturers from outside Tohoku are launching plants in the region, underpinning the reconstruction work following the damage left by the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
“This year, reconstruction will become more evident in (tsunami-hit) coastal areas,” said Kazuhiro Morimoto, head of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s regional bureau for Tohoku.
But while expectations are high, some areas are struggling due to labor shortages.
“Much-awaited construction of our eastern Japan base for paper diapers is now beginning,” Daio Paper Corp. President Masayoshi Sako said during a groundbreaking ceremony Feb. 23 for a new plant in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.
The plant is slated to hire nearly 80 locals. Welcoming the move, a local taxi driver said the plant will help promote post-disaster reconstruction in the area.
Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures were hit hardest by the disaster.
Subsidies from the central and local governments are supporting business expansion in the three prefectures.
The number of factories established in the prefectures by companies based outside was only 15 in 2010, but grew to 29 in 2011 and 33 in 2012. Although the number slipped back to 15 in 2013, the number for 2014, yet to be confirmed, is believed by officials to have been high.
A key driver of the recent increase is the automobile industry. Industry accumulation is progressing, mainly in Miyagi, as Toyota Motor Corp. has chosen Tohoku as its third major domestic production base, after Chubu and Kyushu.
In coastal areas of southern Miyagi and northern Fukushima, aircraft-related factories are being built by such companies as IHI Corp.
Takashi Kasamatsu, 36, works at an aircraft component plant established by Jamco Corp. in the Miyagi city of Natori in April 2013.
“My life was hard after the disaster,” he said. “But since starting to work at this factory, I find it easier to plan my life.”
Stainless steel processing firm Melco Japan Co. will start building a new aircraft parts plant in the town of Yamamoto, also in Miyagi, this month.
Melco Japan Chairman Masuyuki Kurita indicated the company may expand the plant as an increasing number of locals are returning to the area.
Corporate expansion and industrial reconstruction, however, have been uneven in the disaster-hit areas.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi, the site that hosted a plant of a unit of fishery products maker Maruha Nichiro Corp. has remained idle after the facility was destroyed by the tsunami.
In the city, some 80 percent of disaster-affected seafood-processing firms, a key local industry, have resumed operations. But many are struggling amid sluggish sales, partly because manpower shortages are preventing them from operating at full capacity.
In Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the ratios of effective job offers to seekers far exceed the nationwide average. In coastal communities, including Ishinomaki, the ratios stand above 2.0, meaning there are more than two jobs per applicant.
But the situation is not as good as the numbers suggest.
While many applicants are seeking jobs in the construction sector, which continues to benefit from demand for rebuilding, jobs in areas close to the coast are shunned as the memory of the tsunami four years ago is still strong.
An official at a Hello Work public job-placement center in Ishinomaki said the city’s economy has not recovered fully. Citing progress in industrial park construction in a neighboring municipality, the official expressed concern that Ishinomaki may be left behind.
A similar sense of crisis is shared by people in Yamamoto, where Melco Japan’s new plant will be built.
The town saw a massive exodus of residents after the March 2011 disaster. The population in Yamamoto stood at 12,767 at the end of December, against 16,735 at the end of 2010. Recently, some 40 people have been leaving every month.
Melco Japan’s expansion into Yamamoto “is good for local jobs,” said an official at a local commerce and industry group. “But the population decline won’t stop unless more companies come in.”
“Communities in the disaster-hit areas need to make more efforts to boost their appeal and attract investment from more companies,” said Morimoto of the industry ministry’s Tohoku bureau.