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Efforts to bring new industries to coastal areas of Fukushima Prefecture are going ahead as part of moves to promote reconstruction after the local economy was shattered by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear disaster in the prefecture.

The Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework, led by the national and prefectural governments, has attracted companies from robotics and other advanced industries from across Japan. Companies in Fukushima are also starting to participate in the initiative, and work has also begun to foster human resources, one of major challenges involved, among industries, the public sector and the academic sphere.

Activities at the Fukushima Robot Test Field have included testing of an unmanned obstacle-detecting aircraft. | KYODO
Activities at the Fukushima Robot Test Field have included testing of an unmanned obstacle-detecting aircraft. | KYODO

The Fukushima Robot Test Field, a research and development hub and one of the framework’s projects, went into full operation in March 2020 in the city of Minamisoma and the town of Namie.

A total of about 30 companies are housed in related facilities, such as a research and development building and an industrial complex adjacent to the test field, for purposes including developing flying cars and applying drones for use in disasters. Among them are major companies, such as cybermall operator Rakuten Inc., and startups from across the country.

Robotcom & FA.Com, a Tokyo-based developer of factory automation technologies and the first company in the industrial complex, will launch a plant in May with engineers from Japan and abroad. An official from the company praised the test field, saying, “It has excellent facilities and has received a large amount of subsidies.”

Precision equipment-related businesses are concentrated in nearby areas, but it is likely to take time before the effects of the industry accumulation efforts filter through the local economy.

A survey conducted by Minamisoma’s chamber of commerce and industry in fiscal 2019 showed that only less than 10% of local manufacturers are hopeful about the moves leading to new product development and more orders for them.

“The bar is high for local small and midsize companies to enter new business areas,” because of the outflow of skilled workers following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s disaster-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station 10 years ago, a senior official from the chamber said.

To overcome challenges, some 60 local manufacturers established the Minamisoma Robotics Industry Council in 2016, together with university professors and other experts.

“We want to develop robots into one of our key revenue sources in the future” by collaborating with companies at the test field, said Koki Watanabe, director of Minamisoma-based Takawaseimitu Co., a maker of factory automation equipment and precision equipment components, and deputy head of the council.

In addition to such moves, the Japanese government aims to partially open an international education and research center in Fukushima in 2023. The center will bring together human resources capable of handling state-of-the-art technologies from around the world.

Odaka Industrial Technology and Commerce High School in Minamisoma, which has mechanical engineering and industrial innovation courses, focuses on education in cooperation with local businesses.

The prefecture-run school’s efforts are already starting to bear fruit, with some students passing national examinations in the field of information technology before graduation.

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