MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Tsunami-battered steel town faces extinction

Published by MAC on 2011-09-12
Source: Reuters

Remembering 11 March 2011

In the wake of March's massive tsunami-related disaster in Japan came a host of  portrayals of the fate of many thousands, trapped by this horrendous event.

Among them was vivid footage of this "perfect storm" as it hit the northeastern steel port of  Kamaishi - where an estimated 1,000 residents (out of 40,000 human souls) were killed or went missing. See:

Revisiting the town, a Reuters reporter has placed this local tragedy in the context of attempts by its townsfolk to revive an industry which  seemed fated, even before the disaster struck.

Over the past two decades many residents had already moved out in search of gainful employment elsewhere, leaving behind a progressively aging population.

Yet, historically, Kamaishi and its inhabitants were vital to Japan's 20th century "modernising" project.

The steel plant was constructed near an iron mine which opened in 1727, providing ore from 1857 onwards to the country's first-ever blast furnace. Production peaked in the 1970′s when the mine was delivering more than a million tons of ore a year.

Two previous tsunamis - in 1896 and 1933 - had already claimed a total of around 7,000 lives. US naval bombardments towards the close of World War II killed many other residents, leaving Kamaishi town centre destroyed.

But, despite these traumas, the people rebuilt their homes and revived their industry. Indeed, Kamaishi's population had increased to 90,000 by the early 1960s.

Now the future looks distinctly bleak.

Although Nippon Steel continues operating a mill, said to supply more than 10% of global steel cord used in radial tyres, it employs just 250 workers. A few other businesses have been launched, but only a handful of public facilities have re-opened in the town centre.

As for the iron ore mine? It has long-since closed and is now officially classified as an "historic ruin".

Tsunami-battered steel town now faces a bigger challenge - age

By Edmund Klamann


9 September  2011

KAMAISHI, Japan -Disaster, abandonment and rebuilding are nothing new to Kamaishi, an ageing Japanese steel town in the northeast, but the March 11 catastrophe has put its very survival at stake.

The 9.0 earthquake, Japan's strongest ever, spawned a tsunami towering nearly 10 metres at the town centre that left about 1,000 of its 40,000 residents dead or missing and destroyed almost a fifth of its homes.

Kamaishi was already shrinking, like so many other towns in rapidly ageing Japan. But now even the mayor wonders aloud if the town has a future.

The steel industry that used to anchor the local economy has dwindled to an operation that employs only a couple hundred people. And the ruined town is not exactly a magnet for new business.

"Big companies offer security about the future, since they have scale. You can't produce (job opportunities) in a short time with small businesses," he said.

"I'm very afraid we may end up with only elderly people left. If that happens, we're finished."

The fishing and industrial town nestled on the coast and along a winding valley has seen much better days.

Despite its isolation on Japan's mountainous northeast, Kamaishi in the late 19th century became home to Japan's first steel-making blast furnace, thanks to its proximity to a large iron ore mine.

The town prospered as Japan modernised, rebuilding after a massive tsunami in 1896 killed more than half its 12,500 residents. Another tsunami in 1933 killed hundreds more townspeople, as did naval bombardments by U.S. forces near the end of World War II that demolished the town centre.

Yet the town persevered and by the early 1960s, its population had risen above 90,000, doubling in less than 40 years. With the Japanese economic miracle in full swing, Kamaishi was the proud producer of the rails for Japan's world-leading bullet train that began service in 1964.

But just as Japan's pragmatic, hard-driving postwar industrial policy was steering the steel industry to greatness, Kamaishi's remoteness marked it for relentless decline.

"In terms of location, it just wasn't competitive," said Kosei Shindo, an executive vice president of Nippon Steel Corp, Japan's largest steel maker and owner of the Kamaishi works, which is now pared down to a wire mill with just 250 workers.

Lock, Stock and Horses

In its heyday in the early 1960s, the steel works employed more than 8,000 and included two blast furnaces, but it was beginning to lose money. The company decided to concentrate on a new mill in Nagoya, at the heart of Japan's booming auto industry in central Japan, and allowed its workers in Kamaishi to voluntarily transfer there.

It became an exodus.

Young workers especially were lured by training and career opportunities at Nagoya, and educational opportunities for their children in the big city. All told, in the first large-scale, long-distance transfer of blue collar workers in Japan, 1,678 mill workers, or one-fifth the number at peak employment levels, moved to Nagoya.

"Some people asked if they could take their horses," said Nippon Steel's Shindo. "They would book entire rail carriages, although we asked them to leave the horses behind. It was a bigger deal than going to America is today."

It was also the start of a steady departure of Kamaishi's workers, spurred by successive rounds of retrenchment at Nippon Steel. By 1989, it went from hiring 30 percent of Kamaishi's high school graduates to a fraction of that. Even those it hires today are more likely to be sent to the flagship works near Tokyo than employed at home.

Company towns throughout Japan, dependent on declining industries from coal to textiles, have struggled to survive. Local governments have tried to reinvent themselves with new industries -- often with help from their long-term corporate benefactors.

Nippon Steel has maintained a cutting-edge wire mill in Kamaishi that supplies more than 10 percent of the world's steel cord for radial tyres. It has also helped incubate new businesses inside the empty parts of the vast plant, ranging from cultivating orchids to producing meat-free "soy ham".

The town and the company have also worked to attract new employers, including SMC Corp , a profitable maker of high-tech components for automated factory equipment, which is now Kamaishi's biggest industrial employer.

Country for Old People

The acrid smell that hung in the air in Kamaishi just a few months ago, attributed in part to sludge from the sea floor and rotting refuse from seafood processing plants, has largely dissipated. Pesticide sprayed on the heaps of rubble has kept an infestation of flies at bay.

Two hotels, a few shops and a public bath have reopened in the ravaged town centre, although many buildings are marked with red flags for demolition. The town is putting together the disaster zone's first comprehensive plan to incinerate the tsunami detritus.

Yet the people of Kamaishi seem sceptical about their long-term prospects.

"Don't talk about the future!" says Emiko Gotoh, who runs a public bath severely damaged by the tsunami. "There's no place with work, so young people might well leave. It would be great if another big company came, but who'd come here after such a big tsunami?" ($1 = 77.115 Japanese Yen) (Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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