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The Japan earthquake and the specialty fabrics industry

Industry News | July 1, 2011 | By:

A report from IFAI Japan on continuing relief and recovery efforts.

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake devastated the Tohoku region of Japan. Thanks to help and support from people all over the world, the situation is gradually improving in some areas. But as of May 25, with approximately 24,000 missing or killed, an estimated 108,000 people still in emergency shelters, and the ongoing uncertainty of the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima Daiichi, it will be a long time before the residents of that region recover and rebuild.

IFAI Japan sent a questionnaire to its members after the disaster. We found that most of our members are grateful for the support and consideration from all over the world; and most of them have sent donations to the relief efforts, not only in the form of money but also in emergency supplies such as masks, blankets, mats, heat-retaining clothes and other items.

Emergency response

Taiyo Kogyo Corp., Tokyo, and TSP Taiyo Inc., Osaka, donated a 2,000-square-meter suspension structure alps tent, with a capacity to hold up to 2000 people. Takanori Yamagiwa, director and principal engineer, R & D division of Taiyo Kogyo Corp., says, “Not only that, we also donated 19 tents, with a total of more than 16,000 square meters in area, in seven evacuation districts in one month, counting only the major ones. But it is true that we have had to face various difficulties in our support activities, from the beginning.

“The devastated area was much larger than those of previous natural disasters. During the initial stages, the roads were not repaired and the gas supply was insufficient; due to the amount of debris there were no large areas on which a large structure could be built, or where heavy machinery could be brought in. Frequent aftershocks and the tsunami warnings often forced installation work to stop, and people in the area had to be kept informed that the site was still in a very dangerous situation.

“So, we urgently manufactured six easy-installation specified tents in about two weeks, a total of 3,000 square meters, using the least amount of steel frame possible, and brought them to the site. Those large-scale tents are still used in the disaster areas in various applications, including the storage of support goods,” says Yamagiwa.

The Tent Sheet Manufacturers Association sent 200 tents (3.6 x 5.4 meters) collected from its members to various emergency sites. Many IFAI Japan members received orders for tents and shelters for emergency housing and storage. Nobuo Takeuchi, president of Yano Tent Co. Ltd., Osaka, notes, “Comparing the increased demand of refugee and storage tents and shelters for the earthquake, against the decreased demand due to the cancellation and downsizings of various events for the rental tent business, the former is a temporary matter, but the latter will last a long time.”

Junko Takai, president of Hivix Co. Ltd. in Gifu, was watching television and saw that many evacuees were staying at gymnasiums or halls, sleeping on the floors in cold weather. She thought of donating air mats, modifying their company’s water mat into an air mat, talked to officials in Miyagi Prefecture and immediately produced 700 air mats and sent them. Miyagi Prefecture is in northern Japan where the tsunami hit, and is usually cold until May.

Kikuchi Sheet Co. Ltd., Osaka, had orders from a transportation company for a sheet to cover construction materials being sent to the areas, as well as to build temporary shelters. There were also sadder needs, such as sheets and bags to cover and carry remains.

When water and gas lines were not sufficient, Takada Sobi K.K., Gifu, joined a volunteer project to install a tent to allow bathing in the area; they modified the rental tent and installed it in the evacuation site. Since snowfall was still a concern at that time, the tent was reinforced to withstand the snow load.

Kanbo Pras Corp., Osaka, supplied fabric bathtubs. Shinji Nakamura, general manager, says, “The water tank that was developed last year was used as a bathtub for this occasion. There is no hard metal used in this water tank, so it is lightweight. We sent 100 units to the area. This product is certified to be used for food, so it can be used as a tank for drinking water, too.”

A broken supply chain

The devastated Tohoku area has many manufacturers in various industries, as well as fisheries and agriculture. Damage to these production facilities has serious repercussions, not only to Japanese industry but around the world. Toyota announced on May 11 that at that time the company’s rate of operation was about 50 percent, but would reach 70 percent in June, and recover to normal production in December. Automobile parts and material suppliers in the region are working hard to recover, and the results of those efforts are shown in Toyota’s rate of progress.

Most members of IFAI Japan (located all over the country) report that materials have been difficult to get since the earthquake. Both Riku Goto, senior executive director of Goto Industries, Kawaguchi, and Nobuo Takeuchi, Yano Tent, reported the same problem—a shortage of steel pipes, as some major suppliers sustained earthquake damage.

Takako Mitsui, president of Sanwa Kakoshi, Osaka, says: “Materials have become difficult to get. We got so busy, we’ve had to work on Saturdays and Sundays, as some of our competitors in eastern Japan were damaged or lost power. We have to catch up with the market demand.”

Hiroko Kikuchi, president of Kikuchi Sheet Co. Ltd., Osaka, says, “As the fireproofing reagent manufacturing plant was damaged, some materials were difficult to get. I hope they will announce when production will becomes normal, as Toyota did. Otherwise, there may be some other problems; the price of those materials may be inappropriately raised by other suppliers, or some may buy up the material.” Junko Takai adds that Hivix suffered from delays in delivery and price increases of supplies. Those problems seem to be settling down gradually.

Ongoing challenges

There are still many challenges. Temporary housing for evacuees remains an urgent need. Jinichi Komiya, general manager of Chukoh Chemical Industries Ltd., Tokyo, reports: “We are now preparing to supply inexpensive membrane materials, mainly for temporary shelters.” Removing debris, rebuilding infrastructure and urban planning for the future are other areas in which the specialty fabrics industry could play a key role. There are also some new markets emerging; demand for geosynthetics is likely to increase significantly, according to Kanbo Pras’ Nakamura.

At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, to prevent contaminated water from diffusing into the ocean, a silt protector from Taiyo Kogyo was installed. It is likely that giant polyester covers will soon be placed around the damaged reactor building to help prevent the release of radioactive substances into the atmosphere.

Norimichi Tawara, senior consultant to the CEO, Teijin Ltd., Tokyo, says, “There were several countries that required some radiation test certificates to prove that our products, films, fibers, polycarbonates and so forth are not contaminated by radioactive agents. We explained in detail about the situation, and the problem was solved. So far, no significant radiation damage has been seen.” Some groundless rumors have made it difficult for some companies to sell products within Japan as well. At least 60 countries and territories are still restricting imports of some Japanese food and other items.

Due to power shortages, saving energy and power generation are key. Takaten Co. Ltd., Takatsuki, manufactures P-light, an LED light that offers the same brightness as fluorescent lights but consumes only half the energy. Takeshi Yamauchi, company president, comments, “We have been getting more orders. Peoples’ interest is very much on energy savings.”

The Japanese government has requested that Eastern Japan set a goal of energy savings of 15 percent this summer—and it’s predicted to be a hot summer. According to Junko Takai, “Due to the damage to some major chemical company plants in Japan, cooling gel for the summer pillow has been difficult to get. Our company will plan to supply a water pillow instead. Coping with the summer heat will mean a big market for cooling products.” The awning market is expected to grow also.

Hiroyasu Sakakura, president of Nagoya-based Klark Co. Ltd., has been promoting green walls, or “vertical gardens,” using its netting. A green wall can save energy, reduce CO2 and save on power costs for these families; also, taking care of the plants will be a nurturing experience for the children and strengthen family ties, a real consideration during this difficult recovery period.

The Fukushima plant of Meiji Tech Co. Ltd. lost one employee and several members of employees’ families, and had to stop operation for a while. The company is working hard to resume operations in June.

Recovery and rebuilding efforts will continue in the devastated areas in the coming months and years. All of the challenges to the devastated areas (and the entire country) attributed to the earthquake and tsunami will lead to changes in our society, new markets emerging and the development of new industries. Specialty fabrics products manufacturers should have a great opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding—and to grow themselves through the coming changes.

Ms. Kikuko Tagawa is executive director of IFAI Japan.

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