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Japan Subculture Research Center

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Please no stealing! (please!)

ByStephanie Nakajima

Mar 18, 2011

“If your home was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a tsunami, and radiation from a nuclear power plant, you’d be forgiven for not remaining calm”, speculates Christopher Beam in a recent Slate article. “Yet that’s what many Japanese quake victims appear to be doing. People are forming lines outside supermarkets. Life is “particularly orderly,” according to PBS. “Japanese discipline rules despite disaster,” says a columnist for The Philippine Star.”

Nick Kristof of the NYTimes also observed the same phenomenon during a similiar tragedy in Japan’s history: “Japan’s orderliness and civility often impressed me during my years living in Japan, but never more so than after the Kobe quake. Pretty much the entire port of Kobe was destroyed, with shop windows broken all across the city. I looked all over for a case of looting, or violent jostling over rescue supplies. Finally, I was delighted to find a store owner who told me that he’d been robbed by two men. Somewhat melodramatically, I asked him something like: And were you surprised that fellow Japanese would take advantage of a natural disaster and turn to crime? He looked surprised and responded, as I recall: Who said anything about Japanese. They were foreigners.”

Slate‘s Beam goes on to speculate that the reasons for this uniquely Japanese phenomenon run deeper than the oft-invoked ‘culture’ argument (which, he also mentions, is at any rate fallacious for employing circular reasoning). ‘Structural’ differences, such as the long-standing reward system for honesty, a ubiquitous police presence, and the ironically crime-reducing organized crime groups, may help to reinforce the cultural expectation of group over individual.

Jake also contributed information about how the yakuza are keeping looting down and even assisting, on a fairly large scale, in the tsunami relief efforts; “The Sumiyoshi-kai claims to have shipped over 40 tons of [humanitarian aid] supplies nationwide and I believe that’s a conservative estimate.”

For the full Slate article, please go here

For the Nick Kristof blog, go here

There are 22 organized crime groups in Japan. The top three groups and others are distributing humanitarian aid all over Japan, partly for PR, partly as part of living up to their self-professed codes of 任侠道 (ninkyodo). (List taken from National Police Agency Report 2010)

Stephanie Nakajima

Contrarian philosopher, half-woman, half-Japanese, all dolphin.

9 thoughts on “Please no stealing! (please!)”
  1. Is it really that shocking that looting is rare in Japan, or should it be shocking that looting is common elsewhere? There are lessons for all of us in this tragedy. In the end, it is Japan, where even the criminals organize to help…

  2. Probably just an assumption, but in their culture, I guess petty theft and looting is not worth the loss of honor and dignity as well as collective orderliness. There would be looting, of course, but it’s at a surprisingly lower scale than what’s typically expected for most countries.

    If there’s a way to at least spread this sort of mentality to most nations, it will greatly decrease the cost of disaster aid and its economic aftermath and help bring things back to normal (or better) again sooner.

  3. Great points made by all.

    I would just like to add my entirely unscientific theory about why there is little looting in Japan- i think the Japanese today are so highly conditioned to ‘behave’ that even if they wanted to go on a stealing rampage, perhaps even badly, they may find themselves simply incapable. I certainly don’t think that the Japanese are fundamentally more upstanding than any other society; indeed, after the 1923 Kanto earthquake, thousands of Korean citizens were massacred in mob riots, a far more barbaric and disturbing disintegration of order than the looting and rioting in, say, New Orleans.

    I just find what is happening (or not happening) in Japan now to be interesting, as well as the various theories people use to explain the lack of panic/mayhem.

    Thank you everyone for commenting.

  4. :sigh: I’m getting tired by the widespread assumption that looting never happens in disasters in Japan. It *does* happen, it just isn’t reported. I know of which I speak; I lost my home and contents in the Kobe quake of ’95. Although I myself was not a target of looting – nothing worth stealing! – I heard many stories first-hand. Burglaries swiftly occurred in wealthy neighbourhoods that had been evacuated due to suspected gas leaks, and in my down-at-heel apartment building several of my neighbours were robbed (one day we returned to the wreckage to try and inspect our premises, and found an old man carrying stuff out of the building – he told us that he was the father of one of the women living there, and despite our misgivings, we had no choice but to believe him).

    One could always make the argument that desperate people were simply foraging for supplies, but strangely enough the “supplies” were almost always jewellery and expensive audio equipment.

    Regarding the lack of panic or mayhem, well, in my experience in the Kobe quake most people were simply stunned (obviously) and/or waiting for orders (which is generally what Japanese people do a lot of the time anyway – just listen to their train announcements).

    1. There was looting and violent crime in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. You’re absolutely right. There are reports of problems at the evacuation centers as well. Not everyone in Japan is a saint.

  5. this is slightly off topic but i was wondering what the homeless situation in japan is like, not just from this disaster but in general. when i went to tokyo 2yrs ago i didn’t see any homeless people even near kabukicho or shinjuku where i expected to see them given the repuatation of those places.

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