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Sharp’s boomtown seeks salve for bust

Kyodo

The city of Kameyama, Mie Prefecture, home to a major state-of-the-art Sharp factory, rode the boom when the electronics maker was leading the world in liquid-crystal display TV sets.

But the mood in the city of about 50,000 has turned gloomy since the firm fell into decline after the global financial crisis exploded in fall 2008. Voters there appear most interested in steps to boost the economy as the Lower House election approaches.

“I never had to wait long for customers a few years ago,” a taxi driver said at JR Kameyama Station on a lazy afternoon last month while nursing a can of coffee with his colleagues.

Sharp Corp.’s Kameyama plant went fully operational eight years ago and the LCD televisions it shipped were praised as “the Kameyama world model.” Businessmen were lined up for taxis in front of the train station to visit the plant about 5 km away.

“The fare between the train station and the factory is more than ¥2,000. The majority of sales used to come from Sharp-related services,” said a 54-year-old male driver.

The rise of South Korean, Taiwanese and other manufacturers, however, caught a complacent Sharp by surprise. Now it is racking up huge losses and seeking voluntary retirements as rumors circulate that the Kameyama factory may be spun off.

These days, it is quite common for taxi drivers to wait two to three hours at the station to catch a customer. The driver said he currently earns less than half what he used to.

“If key industries grow, so will our livelihood. We need an administration that is capable of running effective support steps for companies to grow,” he said.

The prefecture and the city spent ¥13.5 billion in subsidies to attract the Sharp plant. Since the move apparently spurred the growth of companies related to electronic parts, the city often played up the ripple effect.

“Tax revenues significantly increased, and apartments and business hotels also increased thanks to the influx of workers,” a city employee said. But now its shopping district is dotted with closed businesses.

“We hear of anxieties about the future and wages from regular patrons working for the manufacturing industry,” said supermarket employee Hiroyasu Ichikawa, 34.

The city is a district that has spawned new candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party, Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and others to challenge the ruling Democratic Party of Japan on Dec. 16.

But voters are not optimistic. The winner “must implement measures to increase wages and make employment stable. Unrealistic pledges are a problem,” one person said.

A 79-year-old shopkeeper said he’s focused on the tax hike talk.

“I feel bad about charging a consumption tax to customers and often find myself paying (it) for them,” he said. “The priority is to eliminate waste in finances, and I want each candidate to think firmly by looking at the lives of those living on the margins,” he said.

U.S. solar panel deal

Sharp Corp. will start selling U.S. firm SunPower Corp.’s home-use solar panels as early as this month to strengthen its household solar panel business, sources said Thursday.

The planned move is in line with the manufacturer’s plan to raise its domestic market share in the industry from 30 percent to 40 percent, the sources said.

Between October and next March, sales of the company’s solar cells, which are bound together to form solar panels, are estimated to grow 50 percent to ¥136.9 billion compared with the preceding six months.

Sharp, which is in the midst of restructuring, has already decided to consolidate its domestic solar cell production at its Sakai plant in Osaka Prefecture, while selling off the remaining three factories by next September.