Damage from Japan's earthquake and tsunami has crippled a Nissan engine plant and several key suppliers located near the coastal city of Iwaki. Tokyo-based Asia Editor Hans Greimel traveled to the area last week.
IWAKI, Japan -- Wave-blasted houses filled with sand. Fishing trawlers tossed aground like toys. Second-story watermarks on buildings flushed clean by the deadly tsunami.
In the industrial city of Iwaki, about four hours northeast of Tokyo, the harbor district still bears the scars of last month's devastating earthquake-tsunami double punch.
This stretch of coast in southern Fukushima prefecture is far removed from the northern epicenter of the March 11 earthquake. But for the global auto industry, this may as well be ground zero.
Sandwiched between the sea and mountains here are some of the industry's worst casualties: Nissan's Iwaki engine plant, a one-of-a-kind paint pigment factory and a key automotive microcontroller plant. Nearby is the Port of Hitachi. It came to symbolize the industry's pain when hundreds of new Infiniti and Nissan cars awaiting export were dashed by the waves.
A month after the disaster, each of these quake-battered facilities remained offline.
Inland around the factories, life looks remarkably normal. The odd buckled highway, toppled wall or crumbled roof is the only sign there ever was a 9.0-magnitude earthquake.
But behind the factory walls, huge challenges still stymie a full revival.
Sensitive machinery rattled out of place needs to be fixed or replaced. Water supply is still a question mark. And aftershocks and sporadic power outages interrupt restart plans.
Meanwhile, uncertainty about leaking radiation from the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor casts an unspoken pall over mid-term business planning. Iwaki is just outside the Japanese government's official 12-mile evacuation zone. But the northern side of the city, closest to the troublesome reactors, is a ghost town, with stores shuttered and people gone.
At the 12-mile mark, mask-wearing police patrol a roadblock, turning back the curious.
Nissan planned to resume production at the engine plant on Monday, April 18, despite aftershocks last week that caused further damage. But on Friday morning, the buzz of power tools and jackhammers droned as repairmen shuttled in and out of the front gate.
The plant's front door was roped off, windows were still broken, and a fire truck stood nearby.
Spokesman Toshitake Inoshita was noncommittal about what level of output would be possible when the V-6 engine plant restarts: "It's not fully repaired, but it's ready enough."