By on March 11, 2012

Today, at 2:46 pm, Japan came to a stand-still, again. Trains and subways stopped. People did fold their hands, faced in the general direction of the northeastern coast of Tohoku, and said a silent prayer. Japan and the world marked the one year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that left whole towns razed, more than 19,000 people dead or missing, 344,000 people displaced, and a large area around the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi power plant off-limits for decades, if not permanently.

Writers often like to equate the power released by the quake to the nuclear bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Depending on who you read and believe, it was anywhere between 31,700 and 600 million Hiroshima bombs. Large parts of the coastal areas are dotted with huge, neatly stacked piles of rubble which nobody wants to take and nobody knows what to do with. The devastation was so big that it turned into an attraction on Google Earth.  Considering the immense damage, it is amazing how quickly the country did rebound. On Friday, I visited what was presented to me as an emblem of the amazing turn-around, Toyota’s plant in Kanegasaki, Iwate Prefecture. Here, 1,700 employees are working overtime to build Toyota’s Aqua / Prius c, for which everybody is screaming.

“The Aqua has turned into a symbol of our recovery,” says Tetsuo Hattori, CEO of Kanto Auto Works, one of the members of the sprawling Toyota Group empire. His company is the sole manufacturer of the Aqua / Prius c compact hybrid that itself is turning into a symbol for the turn-around of Toyota. Touted as the world’s cheapest and most fuel-efficient hybrid car, the Aqua sold 13,485 units in January, the first month after its launch. It sold 21,951 in February. It could have sold many more, would the factory in Kanegasaki be able to build more. Toyota sits on 120,000 backorders for Japan alone.

The two lines in Kanegasaki have an annual capacity of 300,000 units, that comes out to 25,000 cars a month. With overtime, output can be raised to 30,000 per month. The plant made 30,000 Aqua in January, 30,000 Aqua in February and will make 30,000 Aqua in March. 24,000 of those stay in Japan. 6,000 are being exported.

The plant is supposed to make other cars than the Aqua. The Iwate plant is also responsible for the production of the Blade, Ist/Scion xD, the Belta/Yaris Sedan, and Ractis. These cars had to make way for the Aqua. All traces of these cars have vanished from the factory.

From the two manufacturing lines to the tree-lined lots where finished cars await shipment, it is Aqua/Prius c as far as the eye can see. Asked what he will do to create more capacity for the Aqua, Hattori says that production of the Ractis may be gradually shifted to the Kanto Auto Works plant in Higashi Fuji. Here, old Toyota standbys such as the Century, or the Crown Comfort, popular with notoriously overpaid Japanese taxi drivers, are being built. A look at the numbers shows that shifting production will bring no relief. It simply cements the status quo. Nevertheless, Hattori flatly denies rumors that the Aqua/Prius c might be built elsewhere than at Kanto Auto Works, or even in a different plant than in Iwate.

We are up in the north of Japan. 500 miles westward, across the sea, is Siberia. The ground is still covered with snow. That snow is “a pain in the neck,” says plant manager Kazutoshi Yoshida. He will keep 1,500 tons of the pain in the neck literally under wraps, and use water from the melting snow to cool the air-conditioning in summer. Once the snow is gone, it will be time for the goats. 12 of them do lawn care duty without using any fuel. They also “create a relaxed mood amongst our workers.” I don’t dare to ask what happens to the well-fed goats come wintertime.

A year ago, I had visited Toyota’s new plant in Ohira, 70 miles south of Kanegasaki. Back then, I had speculated that the plant may be a pilot plant. This time, that title is official. “We want to be the global model plant for compact vehicles,” says a proud Hattori, and his plant manager Yoshida says it again. The workers are highly trained, encouraged to acquire a multitude of skill sets. Workers regularly act as production engineers, providing creative solutions. “This is not something that can happen in emerging nations,” says Yoshida. In 2007, 60 percent of what this plant made was exported. Now, the rate is down to 30 percent, with further reductions likely unless the yen gets weaker and the dollar stronger. If this plant can’t export cars, at least it can export plants.

Some 50 miles from the coast, and sheltered by two mountain ranges, the plant survived the earthquake only slightly damaged. It was back up four days after the quake. Then, it had to wait for parts from less lucky suppliers. One factor in its survivability is the gas-fired cogeneration plant that can provide two thirds of the plant’s electrical power. It will be put to the test this summer. In March and April, the last two of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants will go off-line for maintenance, leaving Japan’s power grid in an even more precarious state than last summer.

Last Friday, the plant opened to outside visitors for the first time since March 11, 2011. As our plant tour draws to an end, the line stops, workers fold their hands, bow their heads, and face east in silent prayer. It is 14:26, time to remember the dead. But it is Friday, two days ahead of the anniversary.

“Tomorrow, we work with one shift,” says my guide. “On Sunday, people want to rest.“

No work on Sunday. A year after the monster quake, normalcy has returned to Japan. In this part of Iwate, at least.

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29 Comments on “One Year After The Disaster, A Visit To A Symbol Of The Recovery: Toyota’s Prius C Plant...”


  • avatar
    jz78817

    I don’t know why people keep using the word “crippled.” Fukushima Dai-ichi is *destroyed.* It is no longer a power plant. It will never output another watt of electricity.

  • avatar

    Great article Bert, unsurprisingly.

    Haha about the goats.

  • avatar
    Slab

    I see in the fifth photo that they segregate the production. Domestic deliveries on the left, and North American deliveries on the right. Seriously, do you think we’ll ever see a yellow or orange Prius?

    • 0 avatar
      SunnyvaleCA

      Yellow and orange are the two colors for taxi cabs out here. I definitely have seen orange ones. Maybe try New York City for a yellow one?

    • 0 avatar
      KitaIkki

      The black one on the right is JDM. No red rear side marker in the tail light cluster.

      • 0 avatar
        Slab

        I’m sure all are for Japanese customers. I was kidding about the colors. In the US we seem to get mostly white, silver and black imported cars, with the occasional red or blue thrown in to mix things up.

      • 0 avatar
        jruhi4

        We’re actually getting the orange Prius c in the U.S. The color name is Habanero (paint code 4V7). Unfortunately, we’re not getting the yellow, but it’s the same High Voltage (paint code 5A3) shade that we saw in the recent Scion tC Release Series 7.0.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    If Detroit was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami, the Volt plant would just conveniently close. Somebody at GM must be wondering, “why are all those people buying the Prius c?”

    Bertel, thanks for this followup story. Your reporting on this disaster throughout the year has been very professional, sensitive, and stellar, really. Keep up the great work.

    • 0 avatar
      alluster

      “Somebody at GM must be wondering, “why are all those people buying the Prius c?””

      The Prius C demonstrates the difference between Toyota and GM and the long term/short term ideologies at both companies. Despite the yen’s negative effects Toyota green-lights the C, takes the Yaris platform, heavily modifies it, throws in a new engine and expensive HSD tech, spends years researching best ways to package the battery, ships it halfway across the globe and sells it at $19,000. GM concerned only about short term profits, takes the Sonic platform and its engine, raises the roof by 5 inches, slaps some chrome on the outside, calls it an Encore and sells it for $24K with leather ones going for $27K or more.

      Its a shame that the Encore will outsell the Prius C by 3 to 1, due to Americas love affair with suv looking vehicles. Toyota earmarking only 2000 units a month for US is not helping either.

      • 0 avatar
        charly

        Prius c is the 4 generation Prius and should make money. Volt is the first generation Volt and is more a test vehicle. First generation Prius didn’t make money either

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        “The Prius C demonstrates the difference between Toyota and GM and the long term/short term ideologies at both companies.”

        I think that could describe a big portion of our societies as well as corporate businesses.

  • avatar
    geo

    It is amazing how quickly the country rebounded. It’s a testament to the strength of a united people with similar values and goals. The Japanese care about their country, and every segment of the population does not want it to descend into chaos, anarchy, and social unrest.

    Contrast this to the western countries, who chant the riduculous, inane mantra, “Diversity is our greatest strength”, and then watch as looting and rioting are unleashed as soon as the lid loosens even a tiny bit, when some disaster strikes, or if a group doesn’t get what they feel entitled to. It seems Japan is a country of grown-ups, doing their best with what they have, and surviving disasters with national unity and national character.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Our leaders have a bad habit of saying one thing and doing another. This isn’t a conservative vs liberal comment either. It’s politics vs reality.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    Did they explain why the Prius C can’t be built anywhere but that Iwate factory? It’s just mind boggling that they would insisting on building this car in Japan when 60% of its production is exported.

    • 0 avatar

      Doesn’t boggle my mind. If there is no “J” on the door,
      I can’t afford to drive it no more.

    • 0 avatar
      genuineleather

      Despite Mr. Hattori’s adamant claims that the Aqua will only be built in his factory, if it continues to sell well in Japan and then abroad, Toyota will have to add more plants.

      If this thing does good volume in North America that they’ll start making it here. Period.

      • 0 avatar
        L'avventura

        As Bertel has mentioned, Toyota will be exporting factories, not cars, in the future, so Prius C production overseas is highly likely. The Iwate plant is Toyota building its know-how, tooling, and supply chain to the Prius C.

        High candidates for future Prius C/Yaris hybrid production is China and Thailand. Both have Yaris/Vitz & Prius supply chain infrastructure.

        The strongest candidate is at Chachoengsao in Thailand. They build both the Prius and Yaris there currently, and it should be well setup to build the Prius C. Moreover, Thai production means tariff free export to Europe and Japan.

        While I wouldn’t count out North American production, Toyota sells relatively few Prius and even fewer Yaris in North America. Neither car is currently built here. Gas prices and consumer demand might change this, but there are probably other areas where Toyota would rather expand its production capability in North America.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Good, informative, article (as usual); thanks.

    Best wishes to the Japanese for their continued recovery.

  • avatar
    alluster

    As someone who dislikes Toyota, I’d have to say the Prius C is nothing short of amazing at an unbelievable price and is probably the most impressive car launched in the last decade. Costs less than a mid level Cruze with almost twice the fuel economy. None of my closest dealers has the sub $20,000 base “one” model yet. I test drove the “two” model yesterday and came away very impressed. The dealer said two base models are in transit, one in moonglow white that I wanted. The fact that Toyota loses gobs of money on each one is pure icing on a cake.

    Also, there doesn’t seem to be any dealer markup from what i can tell. What might prevent me from getting one is my Girlfriend who saw a Red Charger SRT with spoiler rolling down the highway and exclaimed “I want that!”

    GM would sell 4 times as many Volts, if all they did was buy the Prius c for $18K, slap the bow tie badge, and sell at a $5000 profit for $23K.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      “GM would sell 4 times as many Volts, if all they did was buy the Prius c for $18K, slap the bow tie badge, and sell at a $5000 profit for $23K.”

      Sadly, this is quite true… just like the Chevy Nova/Prizm days.

    • 0 avatar
      SpinnyD

      “The fact that Toyota loses gobs of money on each one is pure icing on a cake.”

      I’d like to see a link that shows where Toyota is losing any money on the Prius C, I think you may be mixing it up with the first gen Prius.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    they lose money on every Prius C? That can’t be right. They had 10 yrs at this caper… I can believe they won’t make much in the short term to get it out there but I would think Toyota isn’t in a position to lose money.

    • 0 avatar
      84Cressida

      If anything, the Prius C just makes Toyota more money, since that’s just one more platform to add to the every growing number of HSD vehicles which reduces development costs and helps pay for those costs much quicker. Toyota wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t making money, and they’ve insisted they are making money on the Prius.

  • avatar
    danwat1234

    I hope the Prius C is a massive success.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Tell me again why we are building Volts, Tesla and Fisker cars again at great taxpayer expense and selling them for outrageous amounts?
    Oh yeah, that environmental movement thing.


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