Japan's rubber industry didn't escape the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the island nation March 11, but damage as yet appears light at factories, and no firm has reported casualties to employees.
However, many facilities remain down as inspections continue, and worries about rolling blackouts and unexpected power shortages are of paramount concern, according to the rubber companies.
The 9.0-force quake off the coast of northeastern Japan rippled throughout the country. That and the tsunami that swept the coast caused extensive damage, followed by radiation leaks and possible meltdowns at damaged nuclear power plants.
In Sendai, Japan, the closest major city to the epicenter of the quake, Toyo Tire & Rubber Co.'s tire plant didn't suffer any significant damage, the company said, and there were no reports of casualties among its 1,200 employees.
Power hasn't been restored to the factory yet, the company said. Until that happens—and when the safety of the plant has been confirmed—it won't reopen.
Further south but still in the major quake zone, Yokohama Rubber Co. Ltd.'s Ibaraki prefecture hose and sealing products plant sustained damage and is shut down. Operations at five other facilities were suspended when the quake hit, but production partially has resumed, the company said.
The situation was similar at other rubber industry plants throughout Japan:
c Bridgestone Corp. sustained some damage at its tire plants in the earthquake and aftershocks, but said it wasn't critical. The company shut down its factories, but by March 16 they were back in operation, including northern Japan units in Tochigi and Nasu. Like other firms, production was dependent on the availability of reliable power.
c Sumitomo Rubber Industries Ltd. reported no casualties among the 1,581 workers at its Shirakawa factory, which was in the major quake zone. The factory was spared serious damage.
c Synthetic rubber producer JSR Corp. said it halted production at its Kashima plant in Kamisu, Ibaraki prefecture, but hasn't found any significant damage, and SR maker Zeon Corp. said its facilities and staff came through the disaster OK. So did Solutia Inc.'s Flexsys Akzo Nobel K.K industrial chemicals unit in Kashima.
Meanwhile, Lanxess A.G. temporarily closed its Tokyo headquarters office and banned other staff from travelling there. Local staff have moved temporarily to the Rhein Chemie rubber chemicals plant in Toyohashi, 155 miles southwest of the Japanese capital, which continues to operate.
The biggest customer for many rubber companies, Japan's auto makers, closed their facilities because of the disaster. The lack of adequate power and components threatened all the auto firms, even those least-affected by the earthquake and tsunami.
Japan's “automotive industry is facing acute and unprecedented problems relating to component and power-supply shortages,” said Paul Newton, a London-based auto analyst for HIS Automotive. Toyota could lose up to 95,000 units of production, a company spokesman said, and Koji Endo, an analyst at Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo, estimated the auto makers may see profits fall by $80 million for each day of lost output.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp. has reopened its plants, but Honda and Mazda Motor Corp. said they wouldn't restart until March 20 or 21. Nissan began phasing in production at one factory, while inventories last.
The earthquake, one of the most powerful ever recorded, and the tsunami are estimated to have killed 10,000 people. Several rubber industry companies already have pledged financial support to relief efforts: Bridgestone $3.5 million, Yokohama $610,000 and Continental A.G. $352,000. Bridgestone's North American subsidiary, Bridgestone Americas Inc., also is donating $250,000.