2013 No.10

Quality with a Japanese Flair


In Pursuit of Safety

Japan has long valued and fostered safety and peace of mind.
Murakami Yoichiro explains how this has been manifested in both mindset and practice.
He was the first scholar to propose the value of safety science,
which is the study of frameworks for a safe society.

Photos by Natori Kazuhisa

A value system that takes safety for granted


Murakami Yoichiro

I've been a proponent of safety science since around the end of the 1990s, and I've exchanged views with a wide spectrum of business managers as part of my studies. They all say they’re well aware that safety is a key corporate responsibility, but many told me they don't see the need to play up the word "safety" as part of their company image.

I suppose that's because we Japanese tend to take safety for granted—it is a key part of our value system. We consider it to be an obvious necessity in our lives. But when something is taken for granted, it doesn't necessarily stand out as a point of appeal, nor does it convey a message that grabs people's attention.

Zeal and diligence for what we take for granted

Just because safety doesn't inspire catchphrases that motivate consumers doesn’t mean companies ignore its importance. On the contrary: companies know if they don't maintain safety they will perish. This is the starting point of how we look at safety, and this awareness is well accepted in Japan. Any examination of the country's corporate mentality finds that the need for safety is so well understood that companies seem practically obsessed with it.

For example, one often sees train drivers and sometimes even conductors point a finger at track signals, directional indicators and other things they have to be aware of, and then call out audibly to themselves that they've done the check. These "point and call checks" might at first seem unnecessary to an outside observer, but they raise safety to a much higher level than if they are not performed. Point and call checks reduce the risk of being negligent, or absentminded, or forgetting to ensure everything is safe.

Safety consciousness leads to safety for the employee, too, and insisting on audible point and call checks demonstrates that the commitment to safety has truly permeated the whole company.

High-speed rail transport: Standing strong in the face of earthquakes


Factory workers search out even the smallest imperfections, and this mentality is behind improvements in manufacturing technology.(Photo courtesy of Aflo Co., Ltd.)

Japanese technology has achieved a level of safety performance that is exceptional by world standards. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that, ever since it opened in 1964, the Shinkansen high-speed rail system has never had a fatal on-board accident involving passengers. The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 caused serious damage, but Shinkansen trains stopped quickly when the seismic activity first started, completely preventing fatalities.

The Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake of 1995 occurred in the early morning before the trains were running, so there were no fatalities or injuries on the Shinkansen system. But the system did suffer severe damage in the affected area and several sections of elevated track collapsed there. This lesson led to reinforcements for elevated Shinkansen track, which experienced no destruction from the 2011 seismic activity. Advanced devices also played a major role during the earthquake's preliminary tremors, stopping trains before the severe vibrations. Incidentally, this success didn't cause the railway to remain satisfied with the status quo—it still keeps sharpening its technologies in pursuit of even greater safety.

Attention to details and flexibility: Two keys to safety

The motive of companies going the extra mile for safety is not just that the public demands safety and peace of mind. There's another factor as well—they want to keep raising their technological potential, and this happens to result in greater safety.

Behind Japan's world-class technical expertise is the zeal of engineers aiming to raise their personal technical skills. Meanwhile, factory workers have a mindset committed to finding even the smallest imperfections. For individual companies, their strength lies not only in the talents of their engineers but also in how their staff members work as a united team to ensure that the hard work of engineers helps to achieve overall company goals.

Rather than remain content with conventional technology, the Japanese exhibit flexibility in adopting the latest techniques. One good example is medical devices such as CT scanners (which use X-rays to take computerized cross-sectional images of the body). Japan has more CT scanners in operation than any other country, and it has taken the lead with heavy particle beam therapy to treat cancer. A predisposition for attention to detail and the right amount of adaptability result in safety levels unparalleled in the world.

Japan's responsibility after the nuclear accident

Over the centuries Japan has been struck by countless earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, while economic growth has been accompanied by many pollution incidents, especially early on. Each of these has served as a lesson and promoted a propensity to develop measures to protect ourselves from future crises. Although this can seem excessive, the good side is that our high level of safety reflects the people's concerns. The corporate pursuit of technical expertise and the people's call for safety―this combination is driving the development of technology that meets high safety standards.

Despite this, in 2011 Japan underwent the bitter experience of the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident, forcing the country to go back to the basics in its pursuit of safety. The nuclear accident caused the emission of large quantities of radioactive materials, something that should never happen.

It would be a massive undertaking to decommission all of the country's nuclear power plants, taking dozens of years, or even 100 under some scenarios. Even if we were to finally get rid of them all, there will still be a need to prevent the occurrence of such an accident elsewhere, while passing on to others the technologies needed to manage nuclear energy as part of the decommissioning process. Surely this means that Japan, having operated nuclear power plants for half a century, and having thrived thanks to their energy, has this responsibility to the world.

Murakami Yoichiro
Specializing in the history and philosophy of science, Murakami is President of Toyo Eiwa University and honorary professor at the University of Tokyo. He is well known for his many years of research into the relationship between science and society. He has been a proponent of the study of safety (safety science) since the 1990s, examining ways to deal with safety issues not only as a matter of science and technology but also from the perspective of the relationship between people and society.