Reborn from the ruins

After being almost obliterated by Japan’s most devastating natural disaster, Yamanishi shipyard is well and truly back in business, writes Adam Corbett

It has taken three hard years to rebuild the yard, based in the eastern town of Ishinomaki, which came close to being completely destroyed by the worst natural disaster to hit Japan.

Physically, the final piece of the painstaking reconstruction has been put in place, but Yamanishi is still left with the task of fully re-establishing its business.

On a cold January day this year, 50 managers and workers gathered for the official opening of the company’s new ship repair dock, the last stage in the ¥130bn ($127m) restoration project. The low-key ceremony was an important marker for the future of Ishinokamki, where Yaminishi has been a key employer for more than 90 years.

The magnitude-nine earthquake struck at 2.46pm on 11 March 2011, generating an 8.6-metre tsunami that swept across 73 sq km of the town, killing 3,166 residents and leaving 434 unaccounted for. In the economic fallout, the population has decreased from 162,000 to 150,000.

Yet even at the height of the disaster there were signs that the shipyard would be among the survivors. Yamanishi suffered no fatalities among its 200 staff, although there were casualties among subcontracted workers.

Fortuitously, the tsunami that hit the Ishinomaki coastline was lower than in other areas of the Tohoku region and many workers survived in the upper floor of a two-storey office block. Others sheltered on the vessels at the yard, such as the 27,000-dwt Sider Joy, which was in the final stages of construction. The delivery of the bulk carrier later that year by a Hiroshima shipyard was the first small step on Yamanishi’s road to recovery.

In the wake of the disaster, the company president at the time, Hidehiko Maeda, immediately decided to try to save the facility, for the sake of the workforce and the economic regeneration of the region. But the capital demands of reconstructing the yard would test its stretched financial resources.

Current president Kyoaki Nagakura later recalled the decision in a radio interview that has been archived as part of a series of oral histories of the disaster. He told the national broadcaster NHK: “With the workers surviving, it left us with a type of asset and we thought: ‘We have no choice but to rebuild the company’. If it had been the case that we lost half the workers, then it would have been difficult to make that decision.”

The disaster struck as Yamanishi was making a name for itself in the international market for handysize bulkers. Its profile had increased amid the shipbuilding frenzy of the late 2000s and the yard pushed its capacity to the limit to build 27,000-dwt bulkers. Just before the earthquake the small facility was reportedly making sales of ¥20bn a year.

Reconstruction funding had to be secured urgently, and Yamanishi’s main bank, the regional 77 Bank, was quick to offer full support. Further funding was secured from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Reconstruction Agency. Other sources of financial support were the Mitsubishi Corporation Disaster Relief Foundation and the government-run Japan Finance Corporation.

The result was that by August 2012, Yamanishi had announced the resumption of its shipbuilding business. By November it had completed its first delivery (the 700-ton training ship Shinkai Maru, ordered by a fisheries training school). Last year it delivered the first contract it had won since the disaster, for the 2,500-dwt multipurpose ship Urizun. With the repair dock complete, Yamanishi is pretty much back to where it was before disaster struck.

Now the new management team headed by Nagakura is looking to take the yard to the next stage: re-establishing itself in the international market. It will be another big step forward for a yard that has proved itself a survivor.

  • The earthquake that struck the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region was the most powerful ever to hit Japan, and the world’s fifth-strongest since records began in 1900. The quake and the tsunami it triggered claimed 15,884 lives, with 2,636 people missing.
  • The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered several meltdowns; 127,290 buildings totally collapsed, with a further 272,788 buildings ‘half collapsed’, and nearly 748,000 buildings were partly damaged. The World Bank estimates the economic cost at $235bn, making it the costliest natural disaster in history.