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Firms’ Japan operations spared direct blow

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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Massachusetts businesses are carefully monitoring the impact of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a major market for the state’s technology and biotechnology firms and a nation where hundreds of local companies do business.

The earthquake, centered in a remote area, far from commercial centers such as Tokyo, does not appear to have had a direct impact on the Japanese operations of Massachusetts firms, company officials said. Still, disruptions in travel and trade could affect the state’s economy in the short term, analysts said.

The quake and tsunami also spurred worries about the safety of employees working in Japan — particularly when reports of the natural disaster first began to surface.

Employees at the Cambridge headquarters of Akamai Technologies Inc., the Internet network services company, received assurances early yesterday morning from the company’s vice president for northeast Asia Pacific that Akamai’s 40 employees in Tokyo and Osaka were safe. By mid-morning Akamai had posted an offer to donate its services to help relief agencies involved with the disaster keep their websites from crashing as people seek information or make contributions.

“Crisis websites often have to deal with surges in traffic, and that’s where we can help,’’ said Akamai spokesman Jeff Young.

Biogen Idec Inc., the Weston biotechnology firm, has 60 employees in Tokyo. Employees in the company’s European office, in Zug, Switzerland, checked on their colleagues, said Naomi Aoki, company spokeswoman. While the earthquake occurred in the middle of the night on the East Coast, by 7:30 a.m., employees in the Cambridge headquarters were assured that all Biogen’s Japan-based employees were safe.

More than 300 Massachusetts firms do business in Japan, according to the Massachusetts Office of Housing and Economic Development. Japan is also the state’s fourth-largest overseas market, behind the United Kingdom, Canada, and China.

Massachusetts companies exported more than $2 billion in goods to Japan last year, according to World Institute for Strategic Economic Research, a nonprofit research group in Leverett. Medical devices and surgical instruments are the state’s leading exports to Japan, followed by pharmaceutical products, industrial machinery, computers, sound and television equipment, and plastics.

Any effects from the earthquake on the state’s economy will probably be temporary, analysts said.

“The impact on Massachusetts companies is likely to be short term,’’ said Gregory L. Stoller, a lecturer at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, who worked in Japan from 1991 to 1994.

“The Japanese have always been very resilient in the way they’ve come back from economic and natural disasters, and I don’t expect this to be any different.’’

US airlines canceled most of their flights to and from Japan yesterday. Local travel agents were fielding phone calls from Boston-area clients already in areas affected by the tsunami or planning to fly there. At least 10 clients called IACE Travel on Boylston Street, which specializes in travel to Asia, to cancel or change trips to Japan.

“They are kind of panicked,’’ said IACE’s Tsubasa Horii.

Several Liberty Travel clients in Hawaii were evacuated to the sixth floor or higher of their hotel over concerns that a tsunami could hit there, according a local Liberty office.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts companies with Japanese operations said they will continue to monitor events in areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Teradyne Inc., a North Reading maker of electronics test equipment, has 200 employees in Japan.

“Early word is that all are safe, but we remain concerned about not just our own folks, but suppliers, customers, and their families,’’ said spokesman Andrew Blanchard.

“I think the focus right now is making sure everyone is safe and I think maybe next week people will look at impact on business.’’

Erin Ailworth and Katie Johnston Chase of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used. D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.