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Economy

Major typhoon kills 11 and paralyzes swaths of Japan

Kansai Airport unable to reopen, cutting off tourist flow and supply chains

Typhoon Jebi was the strongest storm to hit the main islands of Japan in 25 years.
Typhoon Jebi was the strongest storm to hit the main islands of Japan in 25 years.   © Kyodo

TOKYO/OSAKA -- Typhoon Jebi on Tuesday struck the heart of one of Japan's largest metro areas, killing eleven people and shutting down Osaka's main international airport indefinitely.

The storm also shuttered shops, factories and amusement parks.

The storm was the strongest to make a direct hit on the nation's main islands in 25 years, causing high tides that flooded Kansai International Airport, a key gateway for flights from China and other Asian countries that was built on an artificial island in 1994.

About 3,000 people, including passengers, were stranded there after an access bridge to the airport was damaged by a drifting tanker, and 700 flights were canceled across Japan. Kansai Airport will not reopen on Wednesday.

A high-speed boat that links the airport with nearby Kobe Airport was making special runs on Wednesday morning to extract the stranded people. The boat can carry 110 passengers at a time. Kansai Airport's operator said buses may also be used in the effort, taking lanes not affected by the ship's collision with the bridge.

Kansai is the nation's third-largest airport, after Tokyo gateways Narita and Haneda. In 2017, it handled 28 million passengers, three quarters of them from overseas.

One of the airport's two runways and the ground floor of a terminal building, used for sorting luggage and other activities, were under dozens of centimeters of water.

The airport's ground vehicles were partly submerged by the deluge, and the bridge was slammed by a 2,591-ton tanker that the storm unmoored. Public broadcaster NHK aired footage showing a huge crater in the bridge.

The tanker had 11 crew members aboard, and a helicopter rescue operation was underway.

The transport ministry said it has been unable to assess the full amount of damage to Kansai Airport and that no Japanese airport has reported such large-scale flooding in recent years. It is not known when the gateway might reopen.

Repairing the bridge will take quite some time, according to West Nippon Expressway, the operator of the highway that runs across it.

Kansai Airport plays a significant role in Japan's distribution network, and the closure will severely disrupt supply chains, especially for semiconductors.

Last year, 5.64 trillion yen ($50.6 billion) in exports and 3.94 trillion yen in imports passed through the airport. Electronic components, such as semiconductors, were the top export at 1.29 trillion yen, while pharmaceuticals were the biggest import, at 690 billion yen.

But without an access bridge, the flow of goods from this hub will cease as it becomes little more than an isolated island.

Precision equipment maker Disco may see delays in certain exports from its production facilities in nearby Hiroshima Prefecture. Semiconductor equipment manufacturer Screen Holdings uses the airport to deliver products and parts but will consider other channels, depending on how the situation develops, a spokesperson said.

Companies will work to secure other routes in the event of a prolonged restoration. A shipping company that handles home deliveries said it will use such alternative facilities as neighboring Osaka International Airport, also known as Itami Airport.

All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines canceled all domestic and international flights from Kansai Airport for Wednesday. The airport handled a record 28.8 million travelers last year as the region becomes more popular with tourists, especially in Asia. A slow recovery will inevitably hurt visitors to Japan.

The Tokaido and Sanyo bullet trains were also out of service Tuesday. The entire Tokaido line was suspended starting at 2 p.m., according to East Japan Railway, known as JR East, with only a special train delivering passengers stuck at stations between Tokyo and Nagoya overnight. Crews are hurrying to remove debris and restore operations, but as of 12:30 a.m. on Wednesday there was no timetable for when service will resume.

A truck knocked over by strong winds from Typhoon Jebi in Osaka on Tuesday. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa) A truck knocked over by strong winds from Typhoon Jebi in Osaka on Sept. 4. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

"We are teaming with local governments and related agencies, who I want to exert every effort to prevent the damage from expanding," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo at a meeting at the disaster response headquarters.

But Jebi, which means "swallow" in Korean, has already left untold economic damage in its wake, shutting down factories across a wide area.

Daikin Industries shut down its Osaka headquarters and three nearby plants on Tuesday, while Panasonic closed air conditioner and refrigerator production facilities in Shiga Prefecture. Daihatsu Motor shuttered three factories in the area, including its main plant in Osaka Prefecture.

Toyota Motor on Tuesday evening was forced to stop production at 11 vehicle and components factories in Aichi Prefecture, where it is based. Plants in other areas were also shuttered.

A Toyota representative said its production and supply networks over a broad area were affected but added that operations will resume Wednesday morning.

Major department stores in the Kansai region, around Osaka, were forced to close. J. Front Retailing shut all eight of its Kansai stores for the whole day. It was the first time the Kobe store has closed since 1995, when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated the city.

H2O Retailing, which operates the Hankyu and Hanshin department store chains, closed 12 stores in Kansai. Takashimaya and Kintetsu Department Store also shut some outlets.

Universal Studios Japan in Osaka was closed a full day for the first time in 17 years on Tuesday and will remain shut on Wednesday to continue clearing debris. The park is scheduled to reopen on Thursday.

Nikkei staff writers Akihide Anzai, Yuta Asomura and Yuhei Asakura contributed to this report.

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