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A year after southern Japan quakes, factories back in business

Tourism sector in Kumamoto Prefecture grappling with lasting damage

A collapsed bridge has cut off a major roadway linking the cities of Kumamoto and Aso.

FUKUOKA, Japan -- Auto and semiconductor production in the southern prefecture of Kumamoto is mostly back to normal a year after strong earthquakes rocked the region, though other sectors such as tourism face a longer, steeper road to recovery. 

Powerful quakes shook the prefecture and surrounding areas in the Kyushu island in April 2016, knocking out factories including an Aisin Seiki subsidiary's plant in the city of Kumamoto making mechanisms to open and close vehicle doors.

While partner factories that produce parts such as sunroof and seat components were eventually able to pick up the slack, relocating production took some five days. Toyota Motor, a major client, was forced to suspend vehicle assembly at one point. The Aisin subsidiary has learned from the experience, and now keeps five days' worth of inventory on hand outside the Kyushu region. The Kumamoto plant restored operations by the end of last year.

A Honda Motor plant restored damaged lines making motorcycles, electrical generators and the like by September, with recovery costs totaling 13.2 billion yen ($120 million). A key Sony image sensor plant returned shipments to pre-quake levels in five and a half months. The temblors are thought to have dealt 53.5 billion yen in damage to operating profit for the year ended March 31. The electronics and media conglomerate has since revised its business continuity plan to better prepare for future disasters, taking steps to secure point people for repairs to damaged facilities, for example.

Plants and offices at companies such as Renesas Electronics, Tokyo Electron and Fujifilm Holdings are running as normal. At an industrial park in Kumamoto Prefecture hosting 24 small- and midsize companies, "each plant's production is back to where it was before the quakes," according to a park official.

"Conditions are improving" for the region's manufacturing sector, said Junichiro Takeuchi, chief of the Bank of Japan's Kumamoto branch. Factories have worked overtime to make up for gaps in production, and the recovery itself has brought a boost in demand. Expanding global semiconductor demand also provides tail winds.

Keep out

The road back to health has not been quite so smooth for the tourism sector. The number of overnight visitors to the prefecture slid 11.6% on the year for the October-December quarter. Repairs to Kumamoto Castle's keep have only just begun in earnest, and are slated to wrap up in 2019. Restoring the entire structure and site is expected to take around 20 years. Highway and railway bridges linking the popular resort town of Aso to the rest of the region remain down, and prospects are dim for repairs in the near future. Government-subsidized discounts for travel to the prefecture last year helped soften the blow somewhat. But this year is expected to be a challenge.

The Minamiaso Railway is trying to bring in visitors with head-turning gimmicks, such as railway cars covered in manga drawings. But Daisei Kusamura, the railway's president, estimates that "Minamiaso is drawing less than 70% of the visitors it did before the quake." Operations have been restored along only 7.1km of the company's 17km line.

The city of Kumamoto has teamed up with the H.I.S. group on a 160,000-sq.-meter mixed-use development downtown, slated for completion in the summer of 2019. Kyushu Railway is formulating plans to redevelop 110,000 sq. meters around Kumamoto Station.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers flowers at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Kumamoto earthquakes held in a government office in Kumamoto, in the southern Japanese prefecture of Kyushu. (Pool photo)

Efforts are also underway to accommodate more visitors from overseas, seen as key to the region's recovery. Kumamoto Airport is turning to the private sector to rebuild its damaged terminal and operate it. Charter flights will ferry passengers to and from Hong Kong, covering a route on which regular commercial flights have been suspended.

The port of Yatsushiro, in the city of the same name, is getting upgrades to better accommodate foreign cruise ships. The port has partnered with Royal Caribbean Cruises of the U.S.

Fifty people died from building collapses and other direct effects of a powerful foreshock on April 14, 2016, and the main earthquake on April 16. Factors including a harrowing evacuation brought the total death toll to 225 people as of Thursday. Around 190,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined bereaved family members and Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima at a government office here Friday morning in offering a silent prayer for victims of the deadly quake that rocked the western prefecture a year ago.

"Achieving restoration and recovery as early as possible is the way to honor the souls of those who left us," Abe said after offering a bouquet. He also expressed his intention to support reconstruction efforts to help all those affected, individuals and industries alike.


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