On March 11th 2011 a huge earthquake occurred off the north-east coast of Japan triggering sunami which hit the coast a few minutes later. There was devastating damage and a tragic loss of life as a result. Japan is still reeling from the affects of this disaster which has caused significant infrastructure problems at the same time as problems with several nuclear plants - all while a major recovery effort was underway to help those most immediately affected by the disaster.
Obviously our first thoughts are to help those who have been injured or made homeless and contributions to disaster relief can be made via such organizations as the American Red Cross and The Japan Society
As things slowly recover in Japan, many people are wondering what the effect may be on the Japanese domestic economy and what that will mean for the international photography trade, at least in the short term.
The relatively good news from that perspective is that there was little direct damage to most of the factories involved in the manufacture of photography related products and thankfully few injuries. A small number of employees at one Canon plant were injured and I'm sad to report the death of one Nikon employee. The Nikon factory in Tochigi apparently did suffer significant damage.
Canon have two factories in the immediate area of the maximum earthquake damage. The EF lens plant is in Utsunomiya just south of Fukushima (where the damaged nuclear plants are located). Operations are currently suspended there, though reports are that damage to the buildings was relatively minor. The second Canon facility in the area is at Fukushima. It's the center for inkjet printers and it has also suspended operation.
Canon's digital camera facilities are located on the island of Kyushu (south of Honshu, the main island of Japan) and so suffered little effect from the earthquake.
Sony has a number of production facilities in the area including those responsible for rechargeable batteries, digital cameras and DSLR lenses. Operations have been suspended at those sites even though there was no significant structural damage.
So what effects can we expect to see on the photography industry in Japan and what effects will be reflected in the US?
Well, most of the Japanese production facilities are in reasonably good shape, but the infrastructure has problems. There may be power blackouts, workers may not be able to get to the facilities and external suppliers of critical components may not be able to make deliveries. That's why a number of factories have suspended operation. Most say they hope to be back in production by the end of March, but it remains to be seem whether or not that is the case. Even if a factory is undamaged and the workers can get there, some production may depend on the availability of "widgets" from smaller companies (e.g. molded plastic parts, fasteners, boxes etc.) without which finished cameras and lenses cannot be made, so clearly there are going to be supply problems.
Even those items assembled outside Japan in places like China and Thailand will be affected since they depend on the supply of components which are manufactured in Japan. There's very little offshore manufacturing of Japaese camera components.
While I'm sure that there are currently the usual supplies of cameras and lenses in US warehouses and probably even on boats currently on their way to the US, the supply of products is going to dry up at some point. The consequence of that may be that it will be difficult to find some items and that means that the price will go up. "Supply and Demand" still rules economics and if the demand is there and the supply is limited, prices will rise. Even before the Japanese earthquake prices had been slowly and silently going up (Major manufacturers don't make a big deal out of increasing prices, they'd rather do it quietly so nobody really notices). I suspect that this trend will continue.
I keep track of Canon prices because I list them at various places on this website. Over the last month or so I've recently noticed that the EOS 60D price has risen, along with that of the EOS 7D and EOS 5D MkII. Certainly lenses are included. The 70-200/2.8L IS II USM has price has increased, as has that of the EF 100-400L IS and the EF 85/1.8. Right now everything is trending upwards. A few prices haven't gone up (yet) but there's pretty much nothing that's gone down in price.
Here's a piece from a Shanghai news source:
He said that models that are manufactured in Japan, which are mainly mid-range and high-end cameras such as the Nikon D3 and Canon L series, are among those most affected. He said that such lines account for around 20 percent of camera sales in the city.
"Because of the shortage, retailers are increasing prices by between 5 percent and 10 percent," he added.
If supply is still limited later in the Spring it may affect the usual rebate programs. There's no point in a rebate program to stimulate sales if you can't meet the demand for your products even at non-rebate prices.
My advice to those thinking about new gear would be to buy it now rather than wait and that may especially apply to Canon "L" series lenses which I think are mostly produced in the affected facility in Utsunomiya (along with other EF series, video and commercial lenses). For the next few months at least I can only see supply decreasing and prices increasing. If may be a while before things get back to "normal" and we all know that prices tend to go up much faster than they tend to go down!
There may also be a delay introducing new products. I'm sure whatever is in the pipeline will be released at some point, but if you can't make enough new cameras/lenses to meet market demand, the release date may have to be pushed further into the future.
Of course any problems that we suffer by not being able to get the latest camera or lens pale into insignificance beside the problems the people in the affected area are experiencing, so we have no cause for complaining. Indeed we are very fortunate to be in a position where our worst problem might be the difficulty of finding a new lens.