Japan’s flour mills built to resist earthquakes

by Morton Sosland
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In an article in the November 2008 issue of this journal’s sister publication, World Grain, a major expansion of one of Japan’s largest flour milling complexes is described. The article cites the tremendous extra costs involved in such an undertaking in order to protect against earthquakes. In this instance, the quake protection added a multiple of more than three to what such a facility might cost in new building in a country not requiring extra-strong foundation piling, reinforced walls and floors in the mill building and installation of equipment modified by special safeguards. That same article relates that a 1995 earthquake hitting the Kobe area of Japan meant a flour mill built to similar specifications sustained “only minor damage.”

It is no wonder that this article, especially its description of steps taken to prevent production interruptions as the result of natural disasters, should come to mind in contemplating the catastrophe Japan currently faces. In the wake of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast coastal area of that nation on March 11, public and media attention has centered on the damage sustained by the nuclear power plant in the affected region. As terrifying as having a nuclear meltdown and resulting radiation contamination over the immediate area might be, assuring an adequate supply of food to that nation of 128 million people also has to loom large. This is a situation that not only involves Japan’s modern and energetic grain-based foods industry. It also looms large in the reactions of the government to easing the concerns of its citizenry as to short-term and long-range implications of one of the worst catastrophes in modern history.

Just how important grain-based foods is to Japan is underscored by the food that appears to be the principal target of people rushing to retail stores to stock their shelves against shortages. The Japanese want to buy instant noodles, the ubiquitous food in the container that is ready for immediate cooking when hot water is added. Invented by a Japanese food entrepreneur in response to his countrymen’s desire for

convenience in food preparation, the product vies with rice and a wide range of flour-based items for sale to consumers. If nothing else, this popular urge to stock home shelves with instant noodles emphasizes the centrality of flour to the nation’s diet.

Indeed, the Japanese embrace of such foods has paralleled the post-World War II building of the country’s modern flour milling industry. Mills that have experienced production shutdowns because of the earthquake, its multiple after-shocks and the flood of water that hit coastal towns mainly are those facing power interruptions and wheat supply problems because of their port locations. The power halts reflect the great uncertainty over nuclear generating plants and conservation steps.

A major part of Japan’s milling capacity is built adjoining port grain elevators erected to receive ship-delivered wheat imports, primarily from Australia, Canada and the United States. The northeastern ports, which are closed by the destruction, are described as relatively “minor” in the national context, but they obviously are important enough that their closing creates problems. Similarly, flour is transported in Japan almost entirely by truck, meaning that distribution faces suspension only when highways and roads are closed for emergencies.

Of great importance in assessing the situation facing Japanese milling and its equally advanced baking is the underlying decision made many years ago at the highest level to rely mainly on wheat imports for flour. As the largest food ingredient importer in the world, Japan has built its strength as the third largest global economy by devoting domestic resources to areas other than pursuing food self-sufficiency. Reliance on imports has proved a major stepping stone to economic progress. As grain-based foods around the world wishes Japan a quick and full recovery, confidence rules that even this record-setting earthquake lacked the power to influence any change in that all-important national strategy.

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