“We have to give up our beef bowls?” Many Japanese citizens lamented when their government imposed a ban on U.S. beef products last year. The reason for public outcry was that the Japanese found American beef as the most suitable and tasty for their popular light-meal dish known as “beef bowls.”

It’s been widely publicized that the discovery of a few cattle in the U.S. with mad-cow disease caused serious trade friction with Japan. It also highlighted a difference in the mind-sets between American and Japanese people. On one hand, U.S. citizens seem very willing to accept beef from cattle younger than 20 months, since they posed a much lower risk of infection. The Japanese, on the other hand, demanded much greater certainty about the safety of U.S. beef and required a thorough investigation. It could be said that Americans are satisfied with a low probability of disease in their food, while their Japanese counterparts demanded absolute certainty that the beef was safe before their minds would be “at ease.”

I’ve come to know that there are similar differences in the ways senior management thinks about plant reliability. Some time back, I participated in the discussion of a new maintenance management system with a group of researchers. There, an expert from a manufacturing company made this insightful comment: “Japanese plant management generally shares the premise that no equipment failure or process interruption is allowable in their manufacturing plants. If a top manager should mention that there is the possibility of such problems, he would be subject to harsh criticism for allowing risk of injury to his workers.”


In other words, he must declare instead that there is no such risk. Japanese people tend to ease their minds by denying the presence of risk. This way of thinking, though, leads to an obvious problem. Logically, they can’t place a budget to control a business risk that doesn’t exist. This is a quite unfavorable dilemma for their plant maintenance people. They are in the awkward, untenable position of having no budget to manage a risk that “doesn’t exist.”

The expert continued. “American plant managers think machine failure is inevitable, and this fact is an acceptable and widely understood realization.” That is, they prefer the concept of a calculated risk rather than a false sense of security for the sake of having their minds “at ease.” If the risk is acknowledged and understood, it becomes reasonable to estimate its probability and the resultant business losses. Only then can appropriate resources and budget be assigned to mitigate the risk.

Although the American way of thinking is favorable in planning maintenance in production plants, I don’t want to suggest that the Japanese philosophy should be replaced by the U.S. one. Further, I really don’t want to discuss the trade friction at all, although being a tribologist, I am a specialist of friction and lubrication. Instead, I will stress the necessity of mutual understanding and acceptance of the different ways of thinking between our countries.

Yoshitsugu Kimura is the former president of Japan’s Kagawa University and member of the Science Council of Japan. In 2004, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers awarded him the Tribology Gold Medal, the world’s highest honor tied to the science and technology of friction and wear.