To Matsushita Toso, a small auto surface treatment company in Tome, Miyagi Prefecture, the shiny black metal parts hanging at its newly introduced line are a sign of the Japanese auto industry's growth and recovery from the March 11, 2011 earthquake.
The company with less than 60 employees, located just west of tsunami-hit coastline cities in the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan, is currently producing about a dozen types of body parts for 30,000 units of Toyota Motor Corp.'s high-profile Aqua compact hybrid vehicle per month, after it invested some 250 million yen to double the size of its plant in October in order to attract the automaker's orders.
While the company did not suffer much direct quake damage, its output had been curbed by 60 percent in the first four months, mainly because its client manufacturers were forced to halt production as they were hit by the tsunami and impact of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Making such large investments at the time meant a serious risk.
''It was a major bet,'' said Tatsuro Sasaki, 60, the company's sales planning manager, who helped the company formulate the investment that now seems to be starting to pay off.
The company's monthly sales have swung back to the prequake levels and risen slightly above them after the new line began operation in October, helped by fresh orders of the Aqua it gained with the new facility.
''We could not just sit and wait until we get orders without having the (output) power necessary...We made the investment in view of Toyota's production plan,'' Sasaki said.
The automaker is scheduled to merge its subsidiaries Kanto Auto Works Ltd., Central Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Tohoku Corp. into Toyota Motor East Japan Inc. in July, and annually produce 500,000 vehicles there, including the Aqua.
The popular model, which is currently being produced only at Kanto Auto Works' plant in Kanegasaki, Iwate Prefecture, has garnered 120,000 orders in a month since its January launch, 10 times its monthly sales target, raising hopes for a positive ''ripple effect'' on the disaster-hit Tohoku region's economy.
''The auto industry is one that has a major impact on employment because when plants are built, parts manufacturers gather around them and related works subsequently expand,'' said Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst at the SMBC Friend Research Center.
''There are great expectations'' for the new company, he added.
In the wake of strong demand, Kanto Auto Works alone has hired 200 extra workers to beef up production, while related businesses in the same prefecture are also recruiting more workers, according to the Iwate prefectural government.
Iwate Prefecture has also succeeded in bringing four auto-related companies from Aichi, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures among 20 companies it managed to attract from outside this business year ending on March 31.
''Toyota said it will create a merged company in Tohoku as a production base and has linked it with the disaster-hit region's recovery, and companies took it as a serious message that the automaker will be firmly rooted in the region,'' increasing their interest in the area, said Kazuei Tamotsu, executive director of the prefecture's development promotion division.
''If the merged company will stress the use of local supplies in place of parts currently being brought from Nagoya, we are hopeful that there will be many more companies coming in,'' he said.
But the ripple effects are not felt evenly. Even with Toyota's intention to focus on Tohoku, Miyagi prefectural officials and manufacturers say many companies are still cautious about building new plants, as it remains uncertain whether they will get sufficient orders.
''They are going into vacant plants that already exist instead, so that they can leave any time they need to'' with minimal damage, said a prefectural official in charge of development promotion.
If the units and number of hybrid models produced in the prefecture were to increase, motor makers and other parts makers would start shifting production to the prefecture with more confidence, he said.
Uncertainty also surrounds the supply chains that were disrupted in the earthquake and tsunami. Major automakers in Japan have been reviewing their supply chains after taking a blow from the halt of a key plant of major microcomputer manufacturer Renesas Electronics Corp. due to the quake, but analysts say there are limitations to what automakers can grasp and control.
Many automakers have called on their suppliers to hedge disruption risks but parts manufacturers said it has only been on a request basis.
Matsumura of the SMBC Friend Research Center said, ''While an infallible supply chains can be created if (automakers) were to pour in money, they would not be able to survive the global competition'' over prices and cost-cutting if they did so.
Other factors such as the strong yen eating into their profits made overseas or the government's subsidy programs for eco-friendly vehicles, which is expected to boost demand by 800,000 units a year but could cripple sales once a round of buying runs its course, are likely to continue affecting the course of the industry.
''It is not something that will be settled in one or two years,'' Matsumura said.
A book has been published featuring photographs taken by children in areas hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, expressive of their feelings for their families, lost homes, schools and separated friends.
In the photo album ''3/11 Kids Photo Journal'' published by Kodansha Ltd. and put on sale last Thursday are pictures taken by 33 elementary and
junior high school students in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.
The collection contains about 150 pictures capturing such scenes as their favorite places, including school buildings and gymnasiums that were altered by the tsunami, as well as childrens' backpacks that were swept away and the temporary homes they have been living in.
Photo consultant Yumi Goto was among those who planned the project that started last June. She recruited children and taught them how to take pictures.
''Children's photos have the power to appeal to people as children have purer hearts and greater sensitivity than adults,'' said Goto.
Each photo is accompanied by a caption and some by a short essay written by the young photographer.
''I have learned, lost and gained too many things due to the disaster to grasp them all with my child's hands,'' says one written by Yuma Watanabe, 14, a second-year junior high school student from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture.
Haruki Kanno, 12, a sixth grade elementary school student who lives in temporary housing in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, says, ''I want to promote (this photo collection) to people who don't know about such disastrous situations, and to coming generations and those who have yet to be born.''
Charity concerts performed by prominent musicians and other memorial events were held Sunday around the world to mark the first anniversary of the massive earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster that devastated northeastern Japan.
In Kiev, Ukrainian and Japanese musicians played pieces composed for victims of both the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine and the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant at a charity concert, whose proceeds will be donated to the people affected by the two accidents.
Conductor Takashi Ueno, noting that both countries have experienced sadness from the disasters, said he hoped feelings of sadness would be transformed through the music into strong bonds between the two countries and a future of peace.
In Paris, prominent conductor Yutaka Sado and budding pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii performed at a concert at the headquarters of UNESCO to offer condolences to the disaster victims and encourage those affected by it.
Sado conducted Bach's ''Air on the G String'' played by a student orchestra from Hyogo Prefecture, which was hit by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. He introduced the Super Kids Orchestra as a symbol of cultural revival from a disaster.
Tsujii, meanwhile, played Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in front of an audience of around 1,300.
A memorial ceremony was also held in Shanghai. Among those attending was Cao Wentang, a senior official from Nanjing, a city which recently severed relations with the Japanese city of Nagoya following remarks by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura denying the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
Cao said he expressed condolences as a human being, although his city has decided to postpone Japan Week in Nanjing, a planned cultural event, due to Kawamura's controversial remarks.
In Brazil, home to the largest community of Japanese descent abroad, 80 groups presented drum performances at 2:46 p.m., the time the deadly quake hit Japan on March 11 last year. In Sao Paulo, around 700 people gathered for a commemorative ceremony.
Shichiro Haga, a 78-year-old who originally hailed from Minamaisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, and lost his two older brothers in the tsunami, said, ''It was a tough year and time went by fast.''
Meanwhile, major newspapers around the world such as The Washington Post and The New York Times ran stories about the March 11 disasters on the front pages of their Sunday editions, while TV stations in Russia as well as CNN and BBC reported the government-sponsored commemorative event on Sunday in Tokyo.