In Japan, a displaced auto worker copes and hopes

Japanese earthquake victims at a shelter at Hebita elementary school in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture.

Kai Ryssdal: Honda announced today slowdowns at its North American assembly plants are going to continue until at least next month. The company said its factories in Japan simply can't replace the production capacity they lost after the earthquake.

Marketplace's Scott Tong has been reporting this week about some of the people who have to help get the Japanese economy up and running again. Today, a working mom who had been balancing family life and a factory job at an auto parts maker. It's a job that may never come back. Here's Scott.


Scott Tong: Even before the quake, the economic ground was shifting under Japan's feet, so says 43 year-old factory worker Emiko Shiga. We found her at a shelter for displaced people some 40 miles outside Tokyo. Back home in Fukushima, she worked quality control at a factory. It made some of the 10,000 parts of your car: the seat belt buckle, the steel piece of the ashtray. But now, she spends her hours tailing a precocious first-grader around the shelter.

Shiga's daughter is...

Daughter: Six! One, two, three, four, five six.

And does what comes naturally in the presence of a microphone. As her daughter skips rope near a long row of portajohns, Shiga tells me how on March 11th her factory was badly damaged in the quake. Then the nuclear plant in the neighborhood started spewing radiation. Everyone in town was moved out. Her company's HR reps have checked in on her, but Chiga's received no paycheck for the last month. No word on when the factory will resume. Or whether.

Emiko Shiga: Even before the quake, prices for our products were falling because of competition from China. We were sort of worried whether we'd stay in business. Now we're even less sure.

But she insists, gently, that you can't match Japanese quality.

Shiga: In Japan, our factories are making the best products at reasonable cost. And we deliver fast.

Japanese carmakers have long preferred domestic suppliers. But competition from China is disrupting everything, says Toshinori Nemoto at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

Toshinori Nemoto: Japanese auto manufacturers are thinking to import parts from China now. It has just started.

Now here's an argument not everyone in Japan will like: Offshoring is good for Japan, says economist Yukio Noguchi at Tokyo's Waseda University. He says for rich countries, manufacturing is not where the money is. It's in services.

Yukio Noguchi: Like finance, consulting, IT-related activities and so forth. These are very profitable activities.

And he says, the post-industrial poster-child: America and its companies that have made the transition. He's talking about companies like IBM, which now sells expertise instead of products.

Noguchi: U.S. has already achieved it. Japan tries to stick to manufacturing industry. This is a chance to follow the United States.

Now some in the U.S. -- say in manufacturing states like Michigan -- argue that's not where you want to go. And some workers here in Japan wouldn't choose that path either. Like blue-collar mom Emiko Shiga. Today she's getting her daughter ready for first grade. The new school year is just starting, and this is the first-grade song.

Singing

It's a happy tune, about climbing Mount Fuji, with a hundred friends. And a happy distraction from the trauma of recent weeks. Shiga's daughter is now attending a local school, as they wait out the nuclear crisis back in Fukushima.

Shiga sighs. She wonders if they'll ever move back.

Shiga: I've started to look for a job around here, though I don't know if the same type of quality inspection work is available. If I have to, I'll work on an assembly line. My family depends on my income.

Emiko Shiga's gotta press on.

Shiga: Goodbye!

In Saitama, Japan, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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