Culture, No.7  Aug. 10, 2011


The massive earthquake and tsunami damaged distribution channels of automakers. But cars and scooters are essential to recovery.

“Even if it’s just one car, we want to make the delivery.”

Honda Dream Tohoku and Sendai Toyopet Ishinomaki took action.

Close to the mouth of the Kitakami River and at the northern tip of Ishinomaki City is a small village. In the Ohsashi District populated by fishermen’s households, about 200 residents were quietly forced to live as disaster victims, as if the world had forgotten them.

Relief supplies from the JSDF and private volunteers finally began to steadily arrive, but the residents had one main concern. The undulating geography of the village made it difficult for the volunteer doctor to make the rounds of homes of the elderly, either by foot or bicycle.

They realized they needed a scooter.

Photo : Kofude Kaiji
Kofude Kaiji (second from left) traveled
rough roads to deliver a scooter.

And the decision was made to send them one

It was 5 p.m. on April 3 when President Kofude Kaiji of Honda Dream Tohoku (in Sendai), a company that supervises Honda’s motorcycle distributors in the region, heard the information. The earthquake had damaged Honda’s distributors as well.

But Kofude was struck by his intuition. His eyes met those of President Kawabata Tadahisa of Honda Dream Tokyo, a company supervising the Tokyo area, who was in Sendai to help.

“We’ve got a scooter here. We’ll take that,” said Kofude.

“We can haul it in my van,” Kawabata suggested.

Groups of two and five volunteers left Sendai 30 minutes later on two vehicles heading to Ohsashi with the scooter and provisions such as food and gas.

Many thoughts must have been rushing through Kofude’s head en route. Their information network was jumbled after the earthquake and they were barely able to confirm the safety of all the dealers in the region or provide relief supplies. People turned to motorbikes as an alternate means of daily transportation instead of their cars that the tsunami had washed away, but products did not reach the store.

The core of Honda itself suffered damage at its Tochigi Plant (Moka City, Tochigi Prefecture), and lost one employee. Parts could not be procured and domestic plants still had difficulty resuming production. Yet frustration mounted, knowing that “there were several hundred thousand Honda customers in the disaster-hit areas, and mountains of things we could do for them.” says Kofude. Amid all this came the piece of information that a disaster-hit village needed a scooter. There was no need to think twice.

Rough roads blocked the way, but Kofude and his group arrived at the evacuation camp just past 8 p.m. In the 0-degree cold, the two cars were met with a cheer. As Kofude explained the scooter operation to the representatives at the camp, small children jumped around him. “They were so glad we came,” says Kofude, his eyes slightly welling up as he relates the story. At this very moment, frustration from being powerless was elevated to determination to support the recovery.

Amid the tsunami, a life-risking rescue attempt

On a snowy March 11, it was 40 minutes after the earthquake that a massive flow of muddy water inundated Sendai Toyopet Ishinomaki, a Toyota dealer in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi.

No one imagined that a tsunami would reach the store almost two kilometers from the coast. All 22 employees in the store evacuated to the second floor. Store manager Sudo Kunihiko recalled, “We just had to stand at the window and watch water flow into the store.”

As they opened the second floor window, employees saw several meters before them a family grasping to the roof of a car that the tsunami was carrying. Immediately, without anyone giving the command, employees put their lives at risk to go rescue them.

This changed the employees.

Photo : Toyopet Ishinomaki
Facing a disaster, employees of Sendai
Toyopet Ishinomaki never lost their good
cheer and sincerity.

Cars in the store were washed away, and prospects of resuming business were nowhere in sight, so Sudo ordered his employees to wait at home. Yet on the fourth day after the quake, employee after employee began returning to the store. “We could always close for a while, but if customers need help, we might as well open the store.” Nothing was left in the store to sell. While some dealers chose to halt their business, Sudo decided to open.

Then customers began coming in and presenting their problems. “A car washed in front of the entrance to my house,” “The road’s completely blocked.” A majority of requests were to remove cars; over 10 such requests a day.

While cleanup of the store remained unfinished, employees headed out to do removal work. Without a word to each other, they split roles to complete the work, concerned about the damage others were facing.

As cell phones recovered from being nearly useless after the quake, the Ishinomaki store sales staff jumped at the opportunity to confirm the safety of their customers. Salespeople and their customers are bound by a human relationship mediated by the vehicle. Calls that were intended to confirm the customers’ safety were instead met with “You’re alive!” and “Is your family safe?” – the customers’ concern about the salespeople.

Customers who lost their cars called in with new orders. After suffering major damage from the quake, Toyota has yet to even out its capacity to supply new cars. The Ishinomaki store received orders for 30 new cars and 25 used cars in the three weeks after the quake. Just 10 orders were received in the 10 days prior to the quake.

And on April 1, after working with inventory that managed to stay safe from the tsunami, the Ishinomaki store made its first post-quake delivery to a customer – a hybrid Prius.

Translated from “Kokyaku e no sekinin: Soredemo kuruma wo todoketai-Hisaichi dhirah funto-ki,” NIKKEI BUSINESS, Special Edition: June 27 2011, pp. 114-115. (Courtesy of Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.)