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Shipping Chaos Sends Japan Manufacturers Home

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May 15, 2022

By Masumi Suga (Bloomberg) Japanese manufacturers are increasingly looking to move offshore operations to their home market, according to a Tokyo Steel Manufacturing Co. executive.

The rapidly weakening yen that boosts the competitiveness of Japanese exports, global supply-chain constraints, geopolitical risks and shifting wages patterns are prompting the switch, Kiyoshi Imamura, a managing director of the steelmaker, said in an interview in Tokyo last week.

Among those moving manufacturing to Japan are makers of everything from auto parts to cosmetics and consumer electronics, he said, with the trend expected to accelerate toward the end of this year.

According to Imamura, more Japanese companies are shifting operations out of China, Southeast Asia and Russia. The move to build new plants in their home country is fueling demand for steel used in construction, with the company receiving nearly 30 orders related to such switches, he said.

Related Book: The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by Peter Zeihan

“The yen has fallen so much that Japan’s trade balance won’t be back in the black — under such circumstances, companies judge it’s better to do manufacturing in Japan,” Imamura said. His company has seen orders for steel used in construction rise 10% so far this year, compared with a year earlier, he said.

The yen has declined about 11% against the US dollar since the start of the year, exacerbating rising prices for Japan’s imported commodities.

Even before the yen’s tumble this year, the Japanese government had been supporting relocation of domestic companies’ production bases back to the country.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is funding companies to assist them to invest in new plants that makes crucial products and materials to alleviate the risks of supply-chain bottlenecks. In November, the government also approved 774 billion yen ($6 billion) in funding for domestic semiconductor investment.

“It might sound a bit bullish, but I think a little construction boom will come,” Imamura said at separate group briefing on Monday. The reshoring trend will last at least two to three years, according to the executive.

“Now that the yen has weakened, it’s no surprise more companies will work on boosting domestic production capacity,” Takayuki Homma, chief economist at Sumitomo Corp. Global Research Co., said in a separate interview. The falling yen, which was increasing export margins, was “offering an option to ship goods from Japan strategically,” he said.

Surging labor costs in other nations are also a factor. Imamura said Japan’s wages have barely changed over the past 30 years, while wages in Southeast Asia have roughly tripled over the same period.

Japanese manufacturers have shifted production outside Japan since the 1990s to tap into lower labor costs in Asia and stave off the impact of a strong domestic currency. Japan’s overseas production ratio climbed to a record of 37% in 2018 from 25% in 2001, according to data compiled by Japan Bank for International Corporation.

Price Spikes

Takeshi Irisawa, an analyst at Tachibana Securities Co. in Tokyo, agreed the trend was a bright spot in Japan’s steel market. Still, he noted the country’s entire demand for steel used in construction was stagnant, and recent spikes in steel prices “will be a setback, making it a little difficult for the lower yen” to be a big driver for Japanese production in the short term.

The companies moving operations to Japan also face other hurdles, including high electricity costs and a shortage of labor due to the nation’s shrinking and aging population, said Homma. They will need to be innovative in both efficiently producing goods with fewer workers and coming up with value-added products.

Imamura also said more nuclear power generation was essential to revive the competitiveness of manufacturing in the country. He joined calls by Japanese companies to quickly restart nuclear reactors that were idled after the Fukushima disaster more than a decade ago as the nation grapples with soaring energy costs.

By Masumi Suga, with assistance from Nao Sano. © 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

Related Book: The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization by Peter Zeihan

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