Tetsuo Kawanishi woke up about 6 a.m. Friday, as he does every morning, and called home to his family in Japan.
This morning there was no answer, so Kawanishi called again. And again. The result was the same. That’s when he opened his e-mail to find a message from his company’s headquarters in Tokyo describing the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit off the northern coast about 2:45 p.m. local time.
Kawanishi, president and CEO of Denyo Manufacturing Co. in Danville, was one of many employees at several Japanese companies with local manufacturing operations forced to watch the aftermath of Friday’s disaster play out from afar. Although he was able to reach his family and his staff has been accounted for, it was a tense 24 hours as aftershocks continued on land.
David Edwards, senior human resources manager with Hitachi’s plant in Harrodsburg, said they had been in contact with both American and Japanese staff working in the country. In addition to some Japanese citizens working at the local plant, Edwards said there is currently a group visiting from Japan.
“We have got a team together looking at ensuring the safety of staff,” Edwards said. “We are doing whatever we can right now to assist our staff members in Japan and helping our Japanese staff stay in contact with people over there, but communication is difficult right now.”
Casey Duffy, plant manager with Corning in Harrodsburg, said employees at the company’s Japanese plants in the south of the country, including several Americans, were accounted for Friday.
“All of our people are safe and there has been no impact on any of our production capacity,” Duffy said. “It’s been chaotic because the transportation system has been down, but we have been able to talk to several people and they are all okay.”
Danville’s Denyo plant manager Joey Harris said disruptions to the mass transit system, a sophisticated network of high speed bullet trains meant Tokyo employees were sleeping in the office. There also remains uncertainty now about international travel to the region. Duffy said he was scheduled to fly to Japan this weekend and Harris and Kawanishi were to do the same in a couple weeks.
Much of the damage and loss of life from the initial quake and tsunami has been reported in the northern coastal area where the death toll has continued to rise. However, with aftershocks continuing and other safety concerns, it is has been hard for those who have ties to the country and the culture not to worry.
John Bass is an American purchasing employee and translator for Denyo who is originally from Tennessee. Bass said his wife had been able to contact family in her hometown of Kagoshima, where the couple previously lived for six years.
Bass, who worked as a teacher when he lived in Japan, said he was concerned initially about the timing of the quake.
“I was really worried at first because it happened around the time children would be getting out of school and walking home,” Bass said. “Hopefully, though, because it was during the day there was some warning. It could have been much worse if it had happened at night when everyone was asleep.”
The Japanese people are not unaccustomed to the earthquakes that emanate from some volatile Pacific Rim fault lines. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Kawanishi said he could not reach his parents for an entire week.
Because of the relative regularity of the seismic events, Kawanishi said the country has developed advanced internal communications systems and methods for responding. The domestic cell phone networks have continued to connect people inside Japan.
Although it has been hard to call into or out of the country, some newer technologies are being used to get information.
Kawanishi was able to have several “face-to-face” conversations using an Internet teleconferencing tool called Skype, which allows two people to see each other live on a computer screen while they talk. In addition to using e-mail, he has also been following Japanese television broadcasts on his computer with Keyhole TV.
The lack of electricity in some areas, though, will remain one of the biggest problems people are facing. Because Denyo manufacturers electric generators Harris said the company will have a unique ability to provide a much needed service in the days and weeks to come.
“Being in the business we are in, we see the aftermath of disasters like this up close,” Harris said. “We build generators for good things, celebrations...but when things like this happen we try to help out.”