Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Learning from Failure
ONO Goro  / Professor Emeritus, Saitama University

June 14, 2011
The Investigation and Verification Committee for the Accident at TEPCO's Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations has been convened. Professor Yotaro Hatamura, an expert in the study of failures who chairs the committee, has vowed to "learn from failure." The approach itself is nothing new. It has been well-established since ancient times as being synonymous with "trial and error."
However, until recently the idea of "learning from precedence" tended to focus more on successful practices, such as in business models. Less emphasis was placed on the standpoint of "learning from failures." And this is the reason we repeat the same kind of failures. While the expression "unimaginable circumstances" has been tossed around too often to explain the latest nuclear accident, we now know that most of those "unimaginable" circumstances had in fact been predicted in the past.

For the emerging countries of the world, "learning from precedence" - from failure as well as success – has been a key factor in determining the outcome of social development. Indeed, it is more important to "learn from failures" if their goal is to catch up and surpass the developed countries. Since this requires an understanding of specific, concrete factors that led to success or failure, accurate assessment becomes indispensable.

Thus the "assessment cycle" has been a long-established concept in the field of international development. The concept addresses a broad range of activities encompassing the pre-, mid-, post- and follow-up phases. It involves assessing and auditing projects from multiple angles including technical, economic, social and environmental aspects. The results are successively incorporated into the project cycle and are analyzed and compiled as lessons for the future.

Today, the assessment system is applied not only to development issues, but has been expanded to policy planning in general. Since the 1990s, the system has been introduced and established at many Japanese organizations in both the government and private sectors.

In that sense, failures are an important experience from which to learn and should not be regarded with undue fear. As for avoiding the same failure, we must above all move quickly to collect accurate information, make sound decisions based on the information, and ensure feedback to the sites of action. It is also essentially important to accumulate complete data throughout this process. In other words, hunting for the responsible party, which may lead to concealment of information, is of secondary importance if we are to learn from our failures. This is another point made by conventional textbooks on development assessment and is also in line with what Professor Hatamura advocates.

Since ancient times, Japanese society has traditionally valued harmony, seeking to maintain amicable relationships rather than rocking the boat. Our history has been marked by harsh natural conditions including frequent earthquakes and typhoons. And this led us to cultivate a spirit of “endure and leap forward”, that is, enduring tragic disasters and moving ahead without lingering on the past. These national traits make the Japanese better suited to the idea of learning from failures rather than finger-pointing.

Yet, there is one thing we should remember. In Japan, those in leadership positions have tended to take advantage of such characteristic traits of Japanese society and its people and sweep the issue of responsibility under the carpet.

In the latest nuclear accident, the grave situation we face today was brought about by delayed action and information disclosure following the initial response, when "providing instant feedback while learning from failure" was exactly what should have been done. The biggest problem lies in the fact that the question of who was responsible has been blurred.

Therefore, while I said earlier that we should put the issue of responsibility aside to learn from failures, by doing so we may be risking further delays in containing the accident – our top priority - in this particular case. While we must surely investigate the causes with accuracy and speed, we must not let ambiguity settle on the issue of accountability.

Rather, in this particular instance it is imperative that we clearly establish the line of responsibility at each stage before making improvements to the system to contain the accident. This would also benefit an accurate and speedy investigation into the causes. Meanwhile, with respect to issues of responsibility concerning individual cases, except in cases involving liability without negligence as an organization or delayed information disclosure that led to man-made disasters, we should seek exemptions and relief from responsibility on the basis that they were cases "without precedence."

Let me add that such an argument, which seeks to squarely address the issue, are often avoided in Japan, even by the mass media. And there is an undeniable possibility that proponents of the argument will find themselves on the wrong side of society or become the focus of criticism. Even so, considering the global impact and Japan's responsibility in this accident, I stand convinced this is an argument that must be voiced far and wide both in Japan and abroad.
The writer is Professor Emeritus at Saitama University.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小野 五郎  / 埼玉大学名誉教授

2011年 6月 14日











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