All major car factories in Japan are operating again, although production levels in many plants are a fraction of levels before the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Workers at Central Motor Co.'s plant in Ohira, Miyagi Prefecture, offered a silent prayer to the victims of the disaster and shouted "ganbaro" (let's hang in there together), before restarting the Toyota-affiliated plant's car body production lines on the morning of April 18.
Kanto Auto Works Ltd., another Toyota supplier in the quake-stricken Tohoku region, also resumed production at its Iwate factory in Kanegasaki, Iwate Prefecture, on April 18, making Toyota the last major automaker to reopen all its Japanese factories.
Toyota said production of all domestically produced models had been restarted.
The Miyagi and Iwate plants suffered no damage to their buildings in the quake but were forced to stop operations because of power outages and disruptions to their distribution networks.
The reopening of highways in the region means that some shipments are now possible, but with many parts suppliers still struggling to get back on their feet, Toyota's domestic output is expected to remain around half of normal levels until early June at the earliest.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda pledged to restore normal operations as soon as possible.
Production volumes of other major makers are 50 to 70 percent of normal, and the strangling of production is depressing car sales. Car dealers are warning that they may lose customers.
A Toyota dealership in the Tokai region, where the auto giant is headquartered, said it would have to devote more energy to secondary businesses, like selling cellphones and insurance policies because of the car shortage.
"What kind of business are we in anyway?" one employee quipped.
Parts makers are also facing severe difficulties. Even if their factories are running smoothly, planning production is proving difficult in an environment in which carmakers themselves are having to constantly change manufacturing plans.
"In some cases, we don't know until the end of a month how much we have to produce next month," said a senior executive at one major parts maker. Orders placed with suppliers have fallen sharply.
Unlike major automakers, many car dealerships and parts makers are on a shaky financial footing. Toyota is considering borrowing money to financially support some of its dealerships and suppliers, and other large carmakers may have to rescue business partners.
Power shortages are another major cause of concern.
The Honda Motor Co. plant in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, was opened to the press on April 18, with production lines for the company's Stream minivan and other popular models running again. However, working hours at the factory have been cut due to parts shortages, and power saving measures mean that air conditioning and some lights are off.
As summer approaches, additional cuts in electricity consumption may be required.
Ko Katayama, the plant's general manager, said the government's call for large companies to cut their electricity consumption by 25 percent would not be easy to meet.
"That's a high hurdle, a tough target," he said.
In the wake of the disaster, Honda postponed the launch of its new Fit Shuttle compact wagon, which was due to be manufactured at the Saitama plant and had been slated to hit the market in mid-March.
With power cuts looming, Honda decided to shift production of the new model to its plant in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture. It is now scheduled to be sent to dealerships after the Golden Week holidays in early May.
(This article was written by Tomoyuki Izawa, Satoshi Kubo and Ken Miyazaki)
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