TOKYO -- Three years ago, Mazda dealer Eishi Kuramoto scrambled for his life as a mammoth black tsunami washed away two of his stores along Japan’s northern coast.
The March 11, 2011, earthquake-tsunami double punch sent his business back to square one -- and torpedoed the entire Japanese auto industry for much of the year.
The disaster left 18,000 dead or missing. But as Japan marks the three-year anniversary, Kuramoto and the country’s carmakers have rebounded to precrisis highs.
Kuramoto has built a new store next to where one was torn from its foundation by the raging waters. It is nearly four times the size, with eight service bays vs. three before.
He sank 230 million yen ($2.23 million) into rebuilding Lotus Kuramoto Mazda, and it paid off. Sales last year were up 15 percent from 2012 and up 30 percent from 2011.
“We’ve already recovered from the quake and are growing beyond that,” Kuramoto said in a telephone interview from Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture. “Investing in the new store and preparing for its opening was the hardest part.”
The rest of Japan’s auto industry has been equally resilient.
In 2011, with most of the country’s auto plants offline for at least part of the year, Japan’s vehicle production slumped 13 percent to 8.4 million units, including trucks and buses. The tumble came despite a heroic late-year output surge to make up lost ground.
Last year, Japan churned out 9.6 million vehicles, just topping 2010’s prequake result.
Surviving the quake has only made Japan’s carmakers stronger. They finagled new ways of cutting costs and doing more with less. They reinforced their domestic operations to better withstand the next disaster and spread the risk by diversifying operations overseas.
More importantly, it spurred a revolution in seeking out dual-sourcing components, so they wouldn’t be forced to shutter plants again when the supply chain suddenly implodes.
That, in turn, has opened the door for more foreign suppliers and new cost competition.
Today, Japan’s automakers are roaring back to record profits. Four companies -- Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries -- have forecast record net profits in the fiscal year ending March 31. Each company predicts its net will rise more than 20 percent.
That profit surge has much to do with the yen’s recent weakening against foreign currencies. But Japan’s automakers were still able to absorb billions of dollars in quake losses while battling a yen that was testing historical highs during much of that period.