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Industry’s Pause Raises Supply Chain Concerns

TOKYOJapan’s vaunted “just in time” approach to business has become “wait and see.”

Much of Japan’s industry seemed to remain in a state of suspension Wednesday, as the devastation from an earthquake and tsunami, combined with fear and uncertainty over the nuclear calamity, made it difficult for corporate Japan to think about business as usual.

A businessman walks past an electronic share price board in Tokyo on March 16, 2011. Japan's share prices rebounded 488.57 points to close at 9,093.72 points at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, on bargain hunting following a huge two-day selloff, as Japan scrambled to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Yoshikazu Tsuno
A businessman walks past an electronic share price board in Tokyo on March 16, 2011. Japan's share prices rebounded 488.57 points to close at 9,093.72 points at the Tokyo Stock Exchange, on bargain hunting following a huge two-day selloff, as Japan scrambled to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

And that has left many overseas customers and trading partners in something of an information vacuum, unsure how soon the effects of any supply-chain disruptions would make themselves felt — and how long they might last.

Even General Motors, a company that might seem to benefit from disruptions to Japan’s auto industry, finds itself in a period of watchful waiting. For one thing, the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in-hybrid from G.M. — whose sales could conceivably benefit from any production snags in Toyota’s popular made-in-Japan Prius — depends on a transmission from Japan.

Mark L. Reuss, G.M.’s president for North American operations, said Wednesday that he did not yet know whether his company could count on an uninterrupted flow of that Volt component from Japan.

“We just don’t know from a supply standpoint; there’s so many great things that come out of Japan for the whole industry,” he said, speaking to reporters after a speech at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Here in Tokyo, Japan’s business capital, many companies — whether Japanese or foreign — were distracted Wednesday by plans for removing their employees from the potential path of radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 140 miles north. Telephone calls and e-mails to many corporate headquarters in Tokyo simply went unanswered.

Air Liquide, a French company that is the world’s biggest producer of industrial gases, has closed its head office in Tokyo and moved its operations 250 miles south to Osaka.

The German auto giant BMW, which has 800 employees in Tokyo, is sending its few dozen German employees home and offering local workers safer locations within Japan.

Even the America unit of the Japanese auto company Nissan has ordered any employees traveling in Japan on business to return home.

Within Japan, Nissan has suspended many of its manufacturing operations at least through the weekend because “it is still taking time to arrange delivery of parts from our suppliers,” the company said in a statement. Nissan’s engine plant in Iwaki, near the coast in the earthquake-stricken region, remained out of action, the company said.

Meanwhile, many American electronics companies remain uncertain — or decline to say — whether supplies of crucial components from Japan will hit air pockets. But Dallas-based Texas Instruments acknowledged that one of its Japanese factories would be at least partially out of action until July and would not resume shipping at full capacity until September.

The plant, in Miho, 40 miles north of Tokyo, suffered extensive damage from the quake. It primarily makes chips that convert analog and digital signals, which are used in a wide range of products, including cellphones, digital televisions, computer peripherals and medical equipment — and accounts for about 10 percent of Texas Instruments global output, by revenue. Kimberly Morgan, a company spokeswoman, declined to name any of the plant’s customers.

Technology analysts say the most persistent worry for digital device makers is the supply from Japan of so-called NAND flash — the lightweight storage chips used in smartphones, tablet computers, digital cameras and a variety of other components. Toshiba, the world’s second-largest maker of the chips behind Samsung of South Korea, has closed some production lines.

SanDisk, the third-largest maker of NAND flash, which owns two factories in Japan jointly with Toshiba, said those factories were operating. But the company, based in Milpitas, Calif., said it was concerned about the reliability of Japan’s transportation and electricity networks.

“It will probably be many days or perhaps many weeks before we can assess the entire situation,” said Mike Wong, a SanDisk spokesman.

Seaport damage ...

The tsunami caused extensive damage to seaports along the northeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. And while only one — Sendai-Shiogama — ranks among the country’s largest ports, all play a role in receiving goods from abroad and serving as feeders to the nation’s major seaports farther south.

“The situation is quite bad” for the northeastern ports, said Yoshiaki Higuchi, director of planning for the Japan Port and Harbor Association, “but at the moment we aren’t even certain about the extent of the damage.”

A reporter who visited two other small port towns, Minamisanriku and Ofunato, found that the docks and port facilities were almost completely destroyed. In Ofunato, many of the materials that had been stacked on the docks, like lumber, were carried by the waves into the town, where they crashed into homes and added to the destruction, residents said.

Sendai-Shiogama has particular importance for some companies, including the electronics makers Sony, Canon and Pioneer and the brewer Kirin. It ranks about 13th among Japanese ports in container shipments, Mr. Higuchi said. Together, the 10 most affected ports make up about 10 percent of Japan’s container trade, he said.

Mr. Higuchi said it would probably be six months to a year before the Sendai port was again functioning fully, because a gantry crane that handles containers had fallen and the sea wall appeared to have been damaged.

Mario Moreno, an economist who analyzes seaborne trade data for Piers Global Intelligence Solutions, said it was too early to tell how the crisis in Japan would effect trade with the United States long term. Short term, however, “trade is going to weaken in the months ahead,” he said.

Air freight companies, too, have experienced disruptions because of damage to airports in the northeast and the cascading effect on traffic to and from other airports farther south. The American giant FedEx, for example, shut service to much of eastern Japan, including Tokyo, after the quake.

FedEx said Tuesday that it hoped soon to resume its pickup and delivery in eastern Japan, excluding Fukushima, Miyagi and parts of Ibaraki prefectures, but it warned that delays could continue.

Various companies trying to ship their products into Japan are also facing problems.

All last weekend, Brian Terasawa, the regional director of Asia-Pacific operations for Commodity Forwarders, a freight-forwarding company based in Los Angeles that specializes in perishable products, and his colleagues worked on the telephone with air carriers to get their customers’ shipments through to Japan.

Air transport has resumed, but only at a fraction of the normal pace. Before, his company was shipping 80 tons a day to Japan, including radicchio, Mexican asparagus, tomatoes and chilled or frozen pork. On Wednesday, only about 10 to 20 tons went through.

The problem, Mr. Terasawa said, is the embargo airlines are putting on goods flown to Japan, particularly Narita International Airport near Tokyo. Mainly, only mail and relief supplies are making it through, with a little room left over.

“Domestically, they don’t have food and vegetables in Japan — they don’t have enough and they are afraid about keeping the shelves stocked,” he said.

“We’ve been trying to explain to the airlines that the perishables that we are trying to send through them are relief items. But that’s not clicking with them.”

—Reporting was contributed by Ken Belson in Tokyo, Martin Fackler in Ofunato, Japan, Liz Alderman in Paris, Mark Getzfred in New York, Nick Bunkley in Detroit, and Miguel Helft and Verne G. Kopytoff in San Francisco.

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