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Preliminary Observations of the Tsunami's Impact on U.S. Trade and Transportation With Japan

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Preliminary Observations of the Tsunami's Impact on U.S. Trade and Transportation With Japan

by Sean Jahanmir


The United States faces potential ramifications from the damage to Japan's freight transportation system caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. During that time, the United States may face lower levels of both air and maritime imports in automobiles and parts, high-end electronics and devices such as semiconductors, and specialty chemicals. Damaged equipment, loss of power and disrupted intermodal infrastructure in Japan reduced shipping capacity and interfered with international trade links. The map (figure 1) shows the air and sea ports that were most affected: Sendai, Onahama, Hachinohe, and Kashima.1 The sea port of Sendai was the largest of the affected ports, handling 155,611 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) cargo containers in 2010.2

The disruption of Japan's transportation and distribution networks impacted industrial supply chains in the United States. On March 21, General Motors announced that a shortage of electronic parts arriving from Japan forced the temporary closing of pickup truck manufacturing and assembly plants in New York and Louisiana.3 Other North America based automobile manufacturers, including Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, also suffered supply disruptions and shortages of essential automotive parts, such as electronics and paint pigments, from Japan.4

For the past 5 years, Japan has been America's number two trade partner for both maritime and air modes of freight transport with $173 billion of total imports and exports traded in 2010 (tables 1, 2, 3, and 4).5 Japan is the top export and import partner for the Chicago, Illinois air freight gateway.6 According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data, Japan ranked 4th in the world's top 10 merchandise trade countries from 2004 to 2010.7 See table 5 for a list of top 10 U.S. imports from Japan.

Maritime port operations in affected areas of northeastern Japan may be disrupted until necessary repairs are made. American firms may seek to obtain these products from alternate producers both internationally and domestically while waiting for factories, supply chains, and transport networks in Japan to recover.

U.S. air and maritime exports to Japan may increase, such as grains and agricultural products, steel and 2010 building products, and materials related to energy production to help aid in recovery, and rebuilding of the affected region; see table 6 for a list of top 10 U.S. exports to Japan.

Japan is the world's third-largest oil consuming country (4.4 million barrels per day in 2010) after the United States.8 According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Japan lacks natural energy resources and is capable of meeting only 16 percent of its power demand from domestic production. Closure of the Fukushima nuclear reactors and related damage and disruption to electrical grids, and oil and natural gas facilities, may prompt Japan to seek higher imports of alternative energy sources including fossil fuels. The Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant had a total production capacity of 12,000 megawatts; with the removal of that energy source, EIA reports that industry estimates expect oil consumption to increase by 238,000 million barrels per day as a substitution.

1 Leach, P., Ship Lines Suspend Service at Three Japanese Ports (Mar. 15, 2011), Journal of Commerce, available at as of Mar. 18, 2011. Inchcape Shipping Services, available at, as of May 6, 2011

2 Alphaliner Weekly Newsletter, Volume 2011 Issue 12, (Mar. 15, 2011), available at, as of Apr. 21, 2011. TEUs = twenty-foot equivalent units. One 20-foot container equals one TEU, and one 40-foot container equals two TEUs.

3 GM production halt, layoffs in N.Y. due to Japan disaster (Mar. 21, 2011), USA TODAY, available at, as of Mar. 22, 2011

4 Blair, G., Cars after Japan's quake: Toyota, Nissan, and Honda plan to restart production (Apr. 5, 2011), The Christian Science Monitor, available at, as of Apr. 5, 2011

5 See U.S. Census Bureau's USA Trade Online Database, available at, as of Mar. 18, 2011

6 U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, America's Freight Transportation Gateways 2009, available at, as of Mar. 18, 2011.

7 U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, America's Container Ports 2011, based on data from World Trade Organization, World Trade Organization, Trade Statistics, available at, as of Sept. 18, 2010

8 Energy Information Administration, available at, as of Mar. 18, 2011

About This Fact Sheet

Sean Jahanmir is a Transportation Industry Analyst in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and prepared this fact sheet. Matthew Chambers and Steven Beningo provided assistance. BTS is a component of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA).

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