Photo/Illutration Yukisei Hirono, president of Hirono Iron Works Co., which won Kishiwada city’s urban landscape award after its relocation to higher ground, stands on May 19 in front of the new building of his company in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture. It is fitted with a spiral staircase, foreground, for employees to flee in case of fire or other emergencies through the balcony on the second floor. (Satoru Ogawa)

KISHIWADA, Osaka Prefecture--Yukisei Hirono felt a cold reality sweep over him as he watched the news coverage of the towering tsunami engulfing the townscape in the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011. 

The company head realized that a similar disaster as the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami could occur here and so sought out “to protect the lives of my employees.”

A week after the catastrophe hit northeastern Japan, Hirono, 65, president of Hirono Iron Works Co., and Hidehiko Kawagoe, 66, head of the firm’s general affairs department, were standing on a levee in the coastal industrial zone in Izumiotsu, Osaka Prefecture.

Hirono had a tape measure for commercial purposes in his hand. The two men gauged how taller the levee is than the ocean surface and found the barrier was only 1.5 meters higher than sea level.

Hirono and Kawagoe talked to each other, saying, “This is bad” and “Too bad as you said.”

Hirono Iron Works, which produces parts for Kubota Corp.’s tractors and other agricultural machines, was situated a few hundred meters from the levee.

If a long-anticipated powerful earthquake along the Nankai Trough off Japan’s Pacific coast strikes, high waves were predicted to reach the company in 90 minutes after the tremor.

Wondering whether the enterprise’s 120 staff members on duty would be able to flee to safety during the emergency, Hirono and Kawagoe visited the coastal barrier to examine its height.

They simulated a range of evacuation scenarios, such as escaping to a nearby expressway or erecting a shelter tower on the company’s grounds. Although various ideas were suggested, all of them appeared difficult to realize.

Hirono’s decision came at that time.

“The only option for us was relocating our corporation and plant to elevated ground,” he said.

Fortunately, Hirono found a vacant plot some 13 kilometers away in an industrial complex in Kishiwada. The area lies 107 meters above sea level.

Hirono in 2015 told his employees about plans to relocate the company. The general affairs department conducted a questionnaire survey and discovered all staffers, including part-timers, wanted to continue working at the firm even following the envisioned relocation.

“I was most relieved to see the outcome,” said Kawagoe.

For the construction of the new company building, 32 small and midsize businesses in the local Senshu region provided steel frames, engineering skills, painting techniques and other services.

As younger craftsmen had been sent to areas heavily affected by the 2011 disaster for rebuilding work, veteran artisans left behind were involved in the project.

Hearing that their client would like one resistant particularly to natural disasters, they reinforced the south side of the structure to a level at which it can withstand any strong winds since “typhoons come from the south.”

The two-story upgraded building was complete in 2017.

It is outfitted with not only a Japanese-style room to double as an evacuation center in the event of a disaster but also emergency food, water and blankets. Large lockers and a fitness chamber alike were installed within the new structure.

Hirono Iron Works, which was founded in 1945 and reported sales of 8.2 billion yen ($61.4 million), was also equipped with a cafeteria, so what the operator touts as the “most delicious dishes in Osaka” would be offered to employees virtually free of charge.

Likely due to the high-quality meals, Hirono Iron Works has succeeded in recruiting six to 10 new permanent staffers annually since its relocation.

Takao Nakajima, 41, sectional chief in charge of general affairs, commutes to the new office from Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, by car, but he said he welcomed the change.

“My home is located farthest among all employees,” said Nakajima. “It previously took 45 minutes for me to go to the office, but arriving in the workplace currently takes an hour.

“Though my commuting time has become longer, I am happy that I can work at a cleaner facility.”

In 2018, Typhoon No. 21 hit Osaka Prefecture. A connection bridge at Kansai International Airport was damaged, and coastal areas along Osaka Bay were inundated by high tides.

Buildings around Hirono Iron Works on high ground had their windows broken and shutters blown away. Hirono Iron Works was the only factory with no injuries reported there.

Under the clear sky after the typhoon, Hirono looked up at his company that remained undamaged, reaffirming the effectiveness of the relocation.

“We moved to protect the lives of my employees,” he said. “The decision proved correct.”