BLOG: Is Japan truly ready for The Big One?

TOKYO — By all accounts, Japan’s automakers were scared straight by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown triple punch.

But are they really better prepared for the next big one? Mind you, forecasters say it likely would wreak even worse damage to their industrial base.

Recent hiccups imply a worrisome lack of preparation today, five years after the March 11 9.0-magnitude temblor shut down the country’s auto output for months in 2011. And all despite dogged efforts to reinforce factories and supply chains since then.

Just last month, Toyota Motor Corp. had to halt all auto production in Japan for a week after an explosion at a steel plant took out a critical metal source for engine parts.

While that shutdown was mild compared to the 2011 disaster, Toyota still scrambled for a week to find alternative sources. The automaker’s response showed that the loss of a single supplier’s plant could still cripple the industry.

Tianjin lessons

Then there was the deadly chemical explosion at the Chinese port of Tianjin last August that snarled logistics in and out of China.

Toyota immediately called suppliers to check on the flow of certain components and was nonplused to hear at least one supplier reply: “Hold on, we have to look into it.”

Turns out, Toyota knew about a bottleneck in diodes before the supplier actually using them did. Sadly, that’s not how Japan’s in-vogue “business continuity plans” are supposed to work.

Another killer quake in Japan will be much worse than a random explosion at a factory or shipping port.

Japan’s auto industry largely dodged a bullet in 2011 because the disaster zone was in a remote northeastern corner of the country, away from big population and industrial centers.

Hitting the heartland

Forecasters who study seismic activity and fault lines say The Big One will batter the heartland between Tokyo and Nagoya, smack dab in the middle of the country.

Not only could it wipe out many more people and many more factories, it could effectively sever east-west transportation and communication across the nation. The key transportation corridors and industrial parks hug the Pacific coastline, right in the future flood zone of another devastating tsunami.

Many Japanese believe that quake will strike in their lifetime. Many are resigned to the fact preparation is always imperfect.

“When you’re dealing with forces that strong, there’s only so much preparation you can do,” one supplier executive says.

His company now has regular tsunami drills, in which staffers at a waterfront facility practice scrambling up a rocky escarpment behind them. The five-minute evacuation should be more than enough to outrun the waves, they reckon. Or will it?

Japan’s auto industry has certainly bolstered its resilience to the next killer quake. But it is important to remember that no amount of preparation is ever enough. When The Big One hits, all hell will break loose — regardless of the best-laid plans.

Hans Greimel has been Automotive News’ Tokyo-based Asia editor since 2007.

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