Japan is the United States' fourth-largest trading partner, and trade had increased the first two months of this year -- before the earthquake and tsunami. Now the two busiest container ports in the United States are seeing the effects of the disaster on Japanese imports. It takes time for electronics and auto parts to travel to a port in Japan, and then up to two weeks to cross the ocean. Some exports of produce from the United States to Japan have also been disrupted.
Every day, ships from Asia arrive at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Located next to each other, these two ports on the West Coast are the busiest container ports in the United States. And Japan is the second-biggest trading partner of the two ports combined.
"Japan really helped build international trade 20 or 30 years ago and really is responsible for some of the growth here in the Port of Los Angeles," Phillip Sanfield said.
Sanfield is spokesman for Los Angeles Port. He says Japan makes up 15 percent of the overall trade at the Port of Los Angeles. The largest imports from Japan are auto parts and cars. Nissans come through the Port of Los Angeles.
Long Beach is one of the entry ports for Toyotas. Art Wong is port of Long Beach spokesman. "I’ve heard that Toyota is beginning to slow down their shipment of cars here or even maybe even to stop having as many ships come here,” he said. “So their plants have been shut down pretty much since the quake they’ve started up production again but certainly not at the same level."
The same seems to be true for auto parts. "All of the auto dealers here that rely on parts are telling us there has been a slowdown," Sanfield said.
It is not just incoming cargo from Japan that is slowing down. Some outgoing shipments from the United States have also been disrupted.
"It’s caused a lot of obvious disruption on both sides of the water here and when it comes to agriculture and refrigerated agriculture in particular here it’s been a real troublesome time," Joe LoBue stated.
LoBue developed the Japanese export market for LoBue Citrus more than 30 years ago. He says normally, 40 percent of his exports of oranges are sorted, packed and shipped to Japan. Since the earthquake, he’s seen a 10 to 15 percent drop.
"Those sales are gone and it’s a quarter of a million dollars worth of exportable sales that we won’t see," he said.
LoBue says the loss comes from a string of problems that started with cancellations in the first week after the earthquake.
Then there was the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
"Some of the boats at the very beginning started diverting to other ports in Japan, some of the boats avoided Japan all together," LoBue stated.
Once the oranges got to Japan there were problems with transportation and having enough electricity to refrigerate them. LoBue says the Japanese are also not buying as many oranges from California because of the cost. "Imported goods are still a luxury and how much they will continue having problems they don’t know, but we’re hoping by the fall that things are better," he said.
That hope is shared by officials at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Port officials say exports from the U.S. may increase in the form of lumber and equipment to help Japan rebuild after the earthquake.
"So it’s not clear that overall we’ll actually have less trade with them this year and maybe this slowdown will pick up and accelerate and we may have as much or more trade later in this year," Wong said.
Port officials say it will be weeks if not months before they will know exactly how the earthquake in Japan has affected imports and exports, and it may be much longer than that before trade with Japan is back to the same level as it was before.