4 things the Japanese earthquake taught the Midwest

March 12, 2012

A year ago, people in the Midwest were taking stock of the damage that the massive earthquake and tsunami had done to Japan. And, while the region affected by the earthquake is starting its long recovery, everyone here has learned some permanent lessons.

1) We are all connected. To borrow a phrase from the Symphony of Science, the earthquake on the coast of Japan reminded us of how closely linked everyone is on earth. The earthquake disrupted parts and vehicle production for automakers overseas and in the United States for months — and had a significant impact on the Midwest.

In the Midwest, our Niala Boodhoo found that 160,000 people in the Great Lakes states worked directly for Japanese based companies. She reported on the impact for Morning Edition.

All across the region, companies, charities and even chefs stepped forward to help people affected by the disasters in Japan, sending everything from portable toilets to gas tanks and of course, cash. At Takashi in Chicago, an all-star team of restaurant owners from around the city stepped up to cook a meal whose proceeds benefited the American Red Cross. 

2) Recovery is not instantaneous. We live in a world of the 24-hour news cycle, where word of events happening in one place can be beamed around the world within seconds via Twitter and Facebook. But the comeback for Japanese companies has been a step-by-step process.

One example is the automobile industry, which is vitally important to our region. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Subaru all have factories and employees in our states.

In March 2011, the same month as the earthquake, Japanese automakers held 40 percent of American sales, according to statistics from Autodata, Inc. By June, with parts and vehicle deliveries disrupted, that fell to 30 percent of the market.

Last month, Japanese automakers held 37.8 percent, their highest share since the earthquake, but they are not yet back to where they were.

3) Diversify your production base. Over the past year, Japan’s currency has been at an all time high against the U.S. dollar. That, plus the disruptions caused by the earthquake, is causing a number of auto companies to hasten the shift of production from Japan to the United States.

Toyota told journalists in Toronto last month that it is looking at shifting Lexus and Prius production east from Japan, due to the super-strong yen.

That’s on top of a $400 million expansion that’s taking place at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant, which will become its only global location for the Highlander, a sport utility vehicle. And, Toyota’s new plant in Blue Springs, Miss., which opened in November, is already up to its full component of 2,000 workers.

Honda is expanding in Ohio, where it’s building a new engine and transmission family. It also will build the NSX sports car, which returns in 2015 for the first time in a decade, at a new facility in Marysville.

4) Know your nukes. The weeks-long crisis at Japan’s nuclear power plants caused many Midwesterners to realize that our region also relies in part on nuclear energy. There are 24 nuclear power plants around the Great Lakes, including 11 reactors in Illinois.

Michigan has four, Wisconsin has three and Ohio has two. There are none in Indiana. Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration offers an in-depth look at each state’s nuclear power status. Here are their entries for MichiganIllinoisOhio, and Wisconsin.