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Development and Establishment of Engineering Ethics in Japan

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Engineering is a universal language spoken by those with the passion for designing and building the machines and structures used by humanity on a habitual basis. Some would even declare engineering as a job without borders. However, the idea of ‘without borders’ does not always necessarily apply to cultural and ideological compatibility. In the United States, engineers are to recognize and accept many codes and regulations that are fundamental to safe and legal practice. Professional organizations (deemed engineering societies/organizations), depending on the field of study, are put in place to spread the knowledge and promote the growth for future generations of problem solvers to come. Engineering ethics as the new field came into being in the mid-1970s when scholars from engineering and philosophy joined to identify and address ethical problems confronting engineers. It was created as standard part of curriculums of engineering education and regarded as a part of professional ethics. As stated above, several engineering societies were established for the purpose of the empowerment of engineers and created code of ethics as a way of achieving its purpose. Engineers oriented toward professionalizing themselves, but early code of ethics created by AIEE, ASME, ASCE, and so on attached great importance not to the ‘safety, health and welfare of the public’, which now regarded as the most important principle in engineering ethics, but loyalty to the clients and employers. Engineers in the country have unfortunately experienced and will continue to experience challenges in the workplace and on the field, and like the job description entails, the ultimate objective is to provide any and all solutions when an opportunity arises. However, one question remains to be answered: Can all countries follow suit and make necessary changes when needed? Can other areas of the world do what needs to be done to prevent catastrophic technological failures like the Fukushima disaster that took place in Japan eight years ago?

Japan is in fact one of the major countries in the world with a growing set of engineering ethics focused courses alongside its other disciplines both in undergraduate and post-graduate studies. This has only started taking place within the past fifteen to twenty years, and it kind of raises questions. Engineering has been around since the dawn of time, and if Japan is finally deciding to touch on these concepts and educate future engineers on the necessary codes and regulations deemed significant for safe practice then that leaves a few questions: How does Japan do it? How have they been doing it? How will they continue to do it? The following discussion will tackle a multitude of structural failures and technological disasters along with in-depth suggestions that could have been avoided with the serious implementation of codes and standards. Furthermore, an analysis of whistle-blowing in Japan amongst other signs of corruption will be provided in correlation with a societal comparative study between our country and the Land of the Rising Sun. Those studying and practicing any discipline of engineering are capable of applying the tools necessary to fixing common problems and running day to day operations, but do they understand the importance behind the decisions they make while in the system of moral obligations? This very concept is the driving force behind engineering ethics. Engineers strive to earn their licenses to practice their profession, and one can only hope they would intend on doing everything in their power to maintain their status as such.

Japanese culture, as a whole, is significantly different from American lifestyle as we know it. It is common and deemed as tradition for gifts to been given and received in the world of Japanese business. Some would see this as a potential issue solely based off the fact that, worst case scenario, a deal is reached between multiple companies that might have a shared interest in corruption, then that would be considered to be an ethical issue, right? Engineers working for these companies might not think so. Despite the urgent need to develop professional ethics regarding information behavior, several obstacles exist in Japan. The greatest is the lack of individuals’ ethics of responsibility. To overcome this difficulty, we must examine and reflect on the historical circumstances that led to the formation of Japanese core ethics and on the sociocultural context that compensates for the lack of individuals’ ethics of responsibility. Japanese core ethics were established in the Tokugawa era as an amalgam of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shintoism, providing the Japanese people with the idea that they were existential beings in society, and therefore, should carry out their social responsibility. However, the Japanese lost sight of these core ethics in the early Showa era, and to restore and maintain them are key to developing professional ethics that are effective in modern Japanese society. The rapid development and widespread availability of information and communication technology (ICT) have realized various types of information handling. Massive amounts of data are collected and stored in databases and flexible database management systems, and sophisticated software furnishes us with the ability to manipulate these data. Nationwide as well as worldwide broadband networks can transfer any type of data file, with lightning speed. Bulletin board systems, social networking services and blog services provide us with opportunities to easily publish our opinions. However, the advent of the ICT-driven information society and the great convenience it offers requires us to carry out our social responsibilities for information behavior. In particular, people working for organizations such as firms, governments, hospitals, schools, research institutes, and NPO/NGOs should develop and establish professional ethics concerning the collection, processing, transfer, and disclosure of information because the core activity of their work involves information behavior, which affects the quality of life in a broad range of people. However, it may be a real challenge in Japan to develop professional ethics regarding information behavior in response to the development and spread of ICT. The main reason is that individuals’ ethics of responsibility, which are a necessary component of professional ethics, have been lost in Japan. This is a tragedy for the modern information society because Japan is one of the leading nations in ICT development and usage. To overcome the difficulty and develop professional ethics, it is absolutely necessary to examine and reflect upon the historical circumstances regarding the formation of Japanese core ethical values and upon the sociocultural context that compensate for the lack of individuals’ ethics of responsibility. This paper deals with this issue and attempts to propose an effective way to develop professional ethics that are appropriate for the information age in Japan. After all, Shintoism (Japan’s main religion) has a foundation set on offerings and the will of those who the offerings are being made to. In contrast, other major religions base their faith on a moral compass. Good decisions are made with the idea that good things will come in return, at least according to predominantly Western beliefs. It would be deemed controversial, if a major executive for an engineering firm in the United States to receive gifts in the forms of payments, would it not? This is where the grey space of what it means to accept bribes and what it means to engage in honest and wholesome business will be explored.

Going forty plus years in the past, a business deal was completed in the year of 1972. All Nippon Airline (ANA) decided to purchase 21 Lockheed Tristar L-1011 airliners for roughly $105 million. The decision had caught most industry observers by surprise as they had anticipated the ANA would choose to purchase the DC-10 to replace their aging Boeing 747 fleet, because of close business ties between ANA and McDonnell Douglas. However, this proved to not be the case as four years later, a major arrest would be made. It turned out that some major briberies had been accepted by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and his alleged involvement in the multi-million dollar between All Nippon Airline and Lockheed caused an enormous amount of public outrage and disapproval. Reports released in regards to the controversy revealed details such as Lockheed paying 2.4 billion yen to win the ANA contract. Also, amongst the 2.4 billion year 500 million yen went to Prime Minister Tanaka, 160 million yen to ANA officials, and the balance to various other political leaders. Former Prime Minister Tanaka was found guilty of accepting a bribe, but he delayed by appealing the verdict and stayed out of prison until his death in 1993.

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The in-depth analysis of a major case in which unethical decisions were made by major individuals both in the business and political aspects of Japanese society would leave any industry analyst or casual reader with a few questions and a new sense of paranoia as to what exactly is going on behind closed doors. If these individuals with a great amount of power, can make such unethical decisions, could this clouded judgment make its way into our everyday lives? There is only one way that it would, and that would be through the very laws that these corrupt individuals are proposing and putting into place. For example, Japan once had a loophole in their court system that would allow major companies to take care of customers and themselves without the public ever knowing about it and allow them to uphold an honest image. This would eventually be trumped by Japan’s Product Liability Law, which was passed in 1995. The law itself is simple: a company presents a product with apparent defects, and they should assume responsibility. This seems fair, right? Lawmakers and corporate giants did not think so. Normal protocol prior to the passing of the law allowed for settlements in the form of compensation for damaged or defective products to be handled outside of courts. In other words, if a company released a product that caused physical damage to a consumer, the company would do everything in their power to ensure that your case never saw the light of day. Your damages would be kept a secret between you and the company. You and the company would have direct contact with one another, and negotiations would begin to prevent from the details of your case to ever be released to the general public. The negotiations would be very discrete, and you will receive an undisclosed amount for your compensation. The only issue from your case that would never be solved is the fact that the public never knew about it. The public would never know the facts in regards to the defects that this particular product has. As a result, the company would still be producing and releasing their products without any external interference. All of those involved will continue to optimize their revenue, and money will be continued to be made while the defective products are still being used by the general public. To add further insult to injury, those who had experienced damages had to start the process of taking their case to court by finding a way to prove fault by the manufacturer. For various reasons, it was very difficult for consumers to prevail in court. Individuals had to research the products themselves, ways that the mechanisms should have been built versus how the product exists in its defective state among other conditions. As a result, less than 160 product liability lawsuits were filed in the 50 years prior to the passing of the 1995 law.

With the conducting of further research, a vast majority of cases that partake in unethical decision making have taken place later in the 20th and earlier in the 21st century. Studies raise the question of whether or not engineers are to blame for their ignorance of policies and codes to follow when on the field. Surely some would take this alleged ignorance and use it as a cushion for these blatantly wrong choices when in reality, ethical and unethical choices alike are decisions made from what we as individuals know to be fundamentally right and wrong. If the statement of “I did not know that” were to ever come up, then surely there should be a way to combat it with a statement of “it is what you were taught as a student”. Upon analyzing the higher education system in Japan, students studying engineering were not always required to take courses focusing on engineering ethics. In fact, these courses only started becoming available to undergraduate and post-graduate students at the turn of the 21st century. In contrast with the United States higher education system, engineering ethics courses are required solely based off the fact that they serve as the blueprints and set the foundation for what engineers need to decide when they are put in their careers. This implementation of engineering ethics in the classrooms strips the students of any unnecessary gray space that would allow them to make the wrong choice and give them the leeway to escape legal action simply by being able to provide the excuse that ethical and unethical decision making was not introduced to them while they were students. Cultural observers can even present the argument that Japanese culture is partially to blame as studies show that parents and students alike have not always been interested in the engineering major. However, there is a serious problem for the engineers. The problem is that engineers feel alienated from the public. In other words, public doesn’t know about what engineers are doing. JSCE questionnaire entitled ‘Do You Want to Make Your Child Civil Engineers?’ in the August 2007. Its subtitle is ‘The Social Status of Civil Engineers Working in Japan’. One engineer who edited this featured article said that they are totally not recognized well by other people and grieved over incomprehension of the respondents. The other professional engineer, Ito, described that engineers are not recognized by public or society as a member of the community. That is, they think Japanese engineers are socially invisible in the first place. Both of them commonly claimed that they have to raise their social status, as American engineers and engineering societies did in the early 20th century, to fulfill their responsibility. This is one of the real issues that lies in Japan’s socio-cultural structure. A recent study from 2005 shows the predominant program of study in Japan has been the humanities with business, law and accounting leading with a percentage of 38% versus engineering’s 17%. However, trends are reversing with the adoption of the engineering majors have been increasing due to the rapid advancement of technology and the incentives of high pay for professional engineers.

The March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami sparked a humanitarian disaster in northeastern Japan and initiated a severe nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Three of the six reactors at the plant sustained severe core damage and released hydrogen and radioactive materials. Explosion of the released hydrogen damaged three reactor buildings and impeded onsite emergency response efforts. At the time of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, the Blue-Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was completing an assessment of options for managing spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States (BRC, 2012). The Commission recommended that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conduct an assessment of lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident. This recommendation was taken up by the U.S. Congress, which subsequently directed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to contract with NAS for this study. The methods used by TEPCO and NISA to assess the risk from tsunamis lagged behind international standards in at least three important respects. First, insufficient attention was paid to evidence of large tsunamis inundating the region surrounding the plant about once every thousand years. Second, computer modeling of the tsunami threat was inadequate. And most importantly, preliminary simulations conducted in 2008 that suggested the tsunami risk to the plant had been seriously underestimated were not followed up and were only reported to NISA on March 7, 2011. NISA failed to review simulations conducted by TEPCO and to foster the development of appropriate computer modeling tools. Steps that could have prevented a major accident in the event that the plant was inundated by a massive tsunami, such as the one that struck the plant in March 2011, include protecting emergency power supplies, including diesel generators and batteries, by moving them to higher ground or by placing them in watertight bunkers. Establishing watertight connections between emergency power supplies and key safety systems. Enhancing the protection of seawater pumps (which were used to transfer heat from the plant to the ocean and to cool diesel generators) and/or constructing a backup means to dissipate heat. In the final analysis, the Fukushima accident does not reveal a previously unknown fatal flaw associated with nuclear power. Rather, it underscores the importance of periodically reevaluating plant safety in light of dynamic external threats and of evolving best practices, as well as the need for an effective regulator to oversee this process.

In response, the Japanese government enacted various reforms, including requiring disclosure of politicians’ assets, bringing more transparency to political contributions and imposing stricter ethical rules on public officials. In addition, especially during the past 15 years, Japanese firms have instituted codes of conduct that prohibit giving or receiving inappropriate payments, gifts or entertainment. This applies not only to government officials, but all general business transactions. Today, the majority of the Japanese firms reaffirm the public that their commitment to compliance and corporate social responsibility is in accordance with law. While some challenges remain, Japan as a nation has plenty of opportunity to grow and expand in the realm of making ethical decisions.

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Development and Establishment of Engineering Ethics in Japan. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“Development and Establishment of Engineering Ethics in Japan.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Development and Establishment of Engineering Ethics in Japan. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Nov. 2023].
Development and Establishment of Engineering Ethics in Japan [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2023 Nov 29]. Available from:
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