In the early days after the Great East Japan Earthquake, vehicles were desperately needed to transport supplies and personnel. The roads in the stricken areas had all but disappeared under a mountain of debris. Daimler AG, the German automotive manufacturer, loaned trucks and other vehicles free of charge to the affected areas. The Nippon Foundation was asked to oversee the operation.
Helpful Gifts from Germany
When reconstruction activities got underway, offers of assistance poured in from companies both inside and outside Japan. The Nippon Foundation helped connect these firms with nonprofit and volunteer organizations active in the region by organizing three-way talks and deciding where the available supplies could most effectively be used.
Daimler AG made an initial donation of two million euros on March 18, 2011, a week after the Great East Japan Earthquake. On April 12 it announced it would make a gratuitous loan of 50 heavy trucks and other functional vehicles. The Nippon Foundation was asked to coordinate the two efforts. An official at the Daimler AG Representative Office Tokyo cited the Nippon Foundation’s contributions from the earliest stages after the Great Hanshin Earthquake [in January 1995], its breadth of experience, and strong links with NPOs as the reasons behind the decision. “We knew the foundation would be a good partner and make cogent recommendations on the type of assistance needed in the stricken communities.”
Removing the unimaginably massive quantity of rubble and reconstructing fishing ports were the top priorities, but the vehicles needed to remove and dispose of the waste and transport personnel were in short supply. Aiming to get the vehicles quickly and efficiently to Japan, Daimler AG hired the services of Antonov, the world’s largest cargo aircraft, made in Russia. Soon thereafter, 20 Mercedes-Benz vehicles arrived at Narita International Airport, including eight Zetro trucks, which had never been used in Japan before. Preparations then got underway to create a larger 50-vehicle fleet by procuring additional trucks and cars from Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation, a Daimler Group company.
Government Cooperation by Flexible Stance
Even after the German vehicles arrived in Japan, a number of hurdles had to be surmounted before they could rush to the rescue. Among the 20 imported vehicles, many did not meet Japanese standards. The multipurpose Unimog, which is reputed to be able to traverse the world’s worst roads, and Zetro trucks, which can travel through water 1.2 meters deep, would clearly be able to make a huge contribution to the cleanup efforts, but approval to use them first had to be secured.
Officials from Mercedes-Benz Japan Co., Ltd. and Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation tenaciously negotiated with the two relevant government ministries—the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT). The negotiations continued through the period of national holidays in the first week of May. Ultimately, the Japanese government gave the go-ahead to import the vehicles, on condition that they be used to assist the stricken areas only for the limited period of two years.
Michihiro Honda, deputy corporate general manager of the Corporate Communication Office at Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation, recalls the difficulties encountered during the talks:
“Initially, we planned to register the vehicles, but we found out it would take at least a year to get approval. Obviously, that was too long to wait. We then submitted an application for an exemption to the MLIT, and the ministry’s Transportation Bureau processed the application in no time at all and issued us a special operations permit. The cooperation we received let us put the vehicles to work on Japan’s roads at a very early date. The Zetro trucks far exceeded the size limits for width, and we had to apply for a special road permit. Fortunately, the central and prefectural governments approved our application right away, and we were able to use the trucks almost immediately.”
A committee was established by the Nippon Foundation, Mercedes Benz Japan, and Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corporation to decide how the vehicles should be allocated. The final decision took into account such factors as requests from organizations active in the region and how the vehicles’ functions can be best applied. Local residents qualified to drive large vehicle were recruited so that no time would be lost in putting the vehicles to use.
From Debris Removal to Kitchens-on-Wheels
Recovery in the area around the city Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture was assisted by three Zetros, one Unimog, and six Mitsubishi Fuso Canter trucks. The Zetro and Unimog trucks were able to extricate large fishing nets from poles and remove logs lodged under beached ships at Koamikura beach, about an hour from the center of Ishinomaki.
When sufficient headway had been made in the cleanup operations, the vehicles took to the roads of Tohoku for use in events and other operations. The back of the Zetro trucks were used to cook and serve food. Huge vehicles, never before seen in Japan, received a warm welcome, with some local residents commenting that seeing the trucks on the roads lifted their spirits. These vehicles will be aiding the area until the very end of the two-year period.
Fostering Future Leaders in Tōhoku
In addition to providing emergency aid, Daimler AG and the Nippon Foundation established the Daimler/Nippon Foundation Innovative Leaders Fund, based on the belief that leaders rooted in local communities are indispensable to the future of the northeast region of Japan.
Recently, eight students were chosen to receive a scholarship to study at the Sendai campus of Globis University’s Graduate School of Management—the first graduate school of business in the region. The students will be able to also receive subsidies if they set up a business in the region. Through the fund, Daimler AG and the Nippon Foundation hope to train around a hundred business leaders, and generate new employment opportunities over the next three years in communities affected by the disaster.