In April,2011 Home Living reports on furniture stores in the coastal areas of Sendai city, Miyagi Prefecture, the area most severely affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. The extent of the damage and current customer needs of the stores differ significantly depending on their distance from the coast. The situations of tsunami-hit stores cannot be described in just a few words, such as “disaster victims” and “reconstruction needs.” One thing we can say is that all the stores are making utmost efforts to meet the needs of their customers.
Furniture stores in the city center open for business as usual
A street known as “Furniture Town Honcho” runs near the Miyagi prefectural government office, on the west side of JR Sendai station. Thanks to firm ground around the station, most furniture stores in the area suffered little structural damage and opened soon after lifelines were restored. Product damage was also not as serious as elsewhere, consisting mostly of broken glassware and ceramic ware, and toppled boxy furniture such as kitchen cupboards and chests of drawers.
Most stores in the area now operate as usual, but have shortened opening hours according to customer traffic. After the large stores such as “Daiei,” “Sakurano Department Store,” “Fujisaki,” “FORUS,” and “Mitsukoshi” have closed for the day, customers disappear from shopping street, and the whole town is plunged into darkness due to sweeping municipal power saving programs. On the other hand, some people say the shopping area near Sendai Station attracts more customers than before because the suburban large shopping malls such as “Mitsui Outlet Park Senkaiko,” “Sendai Izumi Premium Outlet,” and “AEON Mall Natori Airy” have been closed since the disaster. (Note: Part of AEON Mall Natori Airy reopened on April 24.)
Norihito Watanabe, manager of one of the stores in the area, the Gallery Modern Space furniture store, said, “The furniture business always runs at a slow pace. No matter how difficult things are, our customers come back to buy quality furniture.” Fortunately, most people in the area suffered only slight damage to their homes, so they are now replacing furniture and household items. According to Watanabe most people ask for solid, quake-resistant furniture, not minding cost, and want add-on gels and bar accessories that stop furniture from toppling. Supplies of these products are starting to run out.
Alongside replacement demand, repair demand has increased in the devastated regions. Six furniture stores in Furniture Town Honcho—Furniture Hiroshi, Yunome Furniture, Furniture Hashimoto, Watanabe Furniture, Gallery Modern Space, and Daimaru—jointly advertised a free furniture repair service in the March 25 issue of a local newspaper. They received up to ten repair orders a day; and Furniture Hashimoto and Daimaru had over 30 products incoming for repair, which they expect to have ready for customers by the end of May.
“Just after the disaster, we had no gasoline, so we visited customers on bicycles, carrying repair tools on our back. In any situation, we want to do our best to continue servicing customers. Some customers told us they get some relief just talking to us,” said Akihiko Oya, manage of Daimaru. All furniture stores along furniture street display a common message at the entrance—“Look up and move on,” to inspire all who see it.
The quake and following tsunamis caused serious damage in the coastal cities of Natori city, site of Sendai Airport, and Iwanuma city. In Natori city, as of April 26, 890 were confirmed dead, 231 were missing, and 1,187 were evacuated. In Iwanuma city, 172 were confirmed dead, 14 were missing, and 483 were evacuated. It is clear that the Sendai-East highway, four kilometers from the coast, played a role in deciding the fate of people in the area. The east side of the highway was completely destroyed by the tsunami while the west side suffered slight damage because, though barely, the highway held back the onrush of seawater.
The Tokyo Interior Sendai-Minami store, located three kilometers west of the highway, closes on weekdays for clean up and opens on weekends. Due to structural damage to the exterior wall, ceiling, and window frames, half the floor remains closed. When we visited the store, damaged merchandise was being sold at a discount.
Coastal stores open despite structural and product damage
Soumaya in Iwanuma city is located two kilometers west of the Sendai-East highway. The store’s interior and exterior walls and window frames were heavily damaged. Unfortunately, damaged products included many high-end items such as bridal furniture and Buddhist alters. All of the chests of drawers, curio cabinets, and mirrors on the second floor were damaged when they toppled. But despite the seriousness of the situation, the shop reopened two weeks after the disaster, and now all floors are restored and the shop operated as usual.
Many customers want old furniture repaired as well as new products. Low to mid-range kitchen cupboards sell well. But because of aftershocks, people are still frightened that the next big earthquake and tsunami upheaval could come today, tomorrow, anytime. “Not only furniture but many houses were lost,” said Soumaya president Kenichi Kuwahara. “We are just grateful to be alive. Many of our customers died. Please visit the Iwanuma city hall and see the exhibit of photographs taken just after the tsunami.” It was evening of a chilly and rainy day when we arrived, and outside the twilight was rapidly darkening into night. The photos were a painful reminder of the tsunami tragedy.
Miyagino ward in the eastern part of Sendai city suffered a quake whose magnitude registered upward of six on March 11. The area near Sendai Port was severely damaged by tsunami. Karimoku’s furniture showroom remains closed due to heavy structural damage. We could see from the main entrance that the interior wall had collapsed. Tokyo Interior Sendai Port, located one kilometer west of the coast, was flooded to above knee height when tidal waters surged through the area. The store remains closed due to serious structural damage—collapsed exterior walls and broken windows at the main entrance. A scene across the street from the store also tells a story of damage: in the empty lot crushed cars are piled one atop another.
Yunome Furniture’s warehouse store was severely damaged, especially the second floor and storehouse, and some parts of the first floor remain under blue plastic sheets. Despite the situation, shoppers filled the store when we visited there. Store manager Kenichiro Yunome said that they have more customers on weekends. There is certainly strong furniture repurchase demand in this area.
Shiogama city is one of the worst tsunami-hit areas with heavy property damage; the human-suffering tolls come to 21 dead, one missing, and 481 displaced as of April 26. JR Sengoku Line, which connects Sendai and Ishinomaki cities, now runs with reduced train service to Higashi-Shiogama station. The Shiogama Furniture Center, located near JR Honshiogama station, has operations as usual but all neighboring stores have been closed since the disaster. The trace of the tsunami surge is marked on the store wall and shows that the largest wave at above knee height. Had the store been 100 meters closer seaward, the tsunami would have been nearly two meters high. The store building was hardly damaged, but most products were damaged by the initial tremor. The president of the Shiogama Furniture Center, Shoichi Nagai, said, “After we restored fallen products to an upright position, they toppled again in the aftershocks. We would restore them and they would be toppled again. This continued several times.”
The floor was still littered with broken products. Product damage was mostly caused by the quake; luckily, warehoused items were safe, so the store could reopen soon after the disaster. While coping with increasing repair demand, the store is willing to address all customer needs by obtaining products directly from manufacturers.