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Home > Media Reiews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #164: September 30, 2003

Refinery fire follows Japan quake

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

"Refinery fire follows Japan quake"


True, the first fire at Idemitsu refinery could be said to have been caused by the earthquake off the coast of Hokkaido, but the magnitude was supposed to be within the calculated levels which could have caused minor misalignments but no such major incident as a fire. And the second fire was indeed a mishandling of such a misalignment caused by the quake, which without a human error should not have evolved to a fire. People are beginning to wonder if this is another indication of deterioration of Japan's industry.

Forty years ago, the term "Made in Japan" meant not only that, it was used to express that the merchandise was cheap, in both price and quality. Japan had just begun to produce cars based on its own design, which was made rugged to withstand the dirty, dusty, and rocky roads of Japan at the time, but it could barely run at 50 miles per hour, or 80 kilometers per hour, and that for an hour at most to avoid the risks of destruction of the car and the lives of passengers.

Thirty years ago, Japan had just about completed its phase of high-growth, being the factory for the world, steady flow of wealth was flowing in, from North America and then Europe, in exchange of exports of mostly industrial and intermediate goods. Twenty years ago, as Japan's industry matures, goods produced began to shift to high value-added products, many intended to reach consumers directly. The implication of the term "Made in Japan" began to change. It had become to mean "expensive in high quality" as such names as SONY and TOYOTA was becoming symbols of prestige among Americans and Europeans.

Then the bubble collapsed. A decade ago, Japanese companies were struggling to restructure its modus operandi, in short, to cut costs. Initially, as there was some hesitation still in the society toward large scale layoffs, companies started by trimming little expenses here and there, such as using less expensive pencils in their offices, or low grade papers in their copy machines. When that sort of measures approached the limit, they began to cut costs on renovations of facilities. As Japanese consumers were spending less, goods of premium quality were less in demand, which in turn reduced companies' aspiration for innovations.

Then finally, as the social taboo for firing employees diminished, companies began to lay off people. The term "restructure" in Japan began to simply mean "laying off", and companies vigorously began to cut the numbers of workers. The trend was vividly apparent in factories where it was considered to be utilizing middle level technologies, which had supposedly been controlled almost totally by automated machines.

After a while, what may be, as some people began to point out, the effects of these measures began to show up, first in small incidents, becoming more frequent and each incident more serious.

In September alone, a gas tank explosion at the Nagoya mill of Nippon Steel Corporation on third of the month, then a fire at a tire plant of Bridgestone Corporation in Tochigi on eighth shocked many in Japan who still wanted to believe that the quality and expertise of running factories by Japanese companies were still at high standard.

This time, consecutive fires at Idemitsu refinery almost shattered that belief.

It may be that the consecutive incidents are only coincidental. Certainly it does have the luck element, as if accidents of such magnitude were to occur three times every month, Japan's whole industry would diminish in a year. But still, as people sense some spookiness, there is an indication of trend in the statistics of casualties in the steel industry comprised by the government, which show that deaths due to factory accidents jumped to nine in 2001 and 20 in 2002, from five in 2000, and in the January-August period of this year, 14 workers died.

Have Japan's factory deteriorated? If, so, is in the equipments, management, or the skill of workers? Analyses are still needed to answer these, but people still should watch out, as these major incidents often involve the safety and lives of workers and people living nearby.

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