Orderly disaster reaction in line with deep cultural roots
March 12th, 2011
07:16 PM ET

Orderly disaster reaction in line with deep cultural roots

The layer of human turmoil - looting and scuffles for food or services - that often comes in the wake of disaster seems noticeably absent in Japan.

“Looting simply does not take place in Japan. I’m not even sure if there’s a word for it that is as clear in its implications as when we hear ‘looting,’" said Gregory Pflugfelder, director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University.

Japanese have “a sense of being first and foremost responsible to the community,” he said.

To Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who studies Japanese culture , the real question is why looting and disorder exist in American society. She attributes it largely to social alienation and class gaps.

"There IS some alienation and indeed some class gaps in Japan too but violence, and taking what belongs to others, are simply not culturally approved or supported," White said in an e-mail.

Pflugfelder is in Japan for a conference and has witnessed the calm response in Tokyo firsthand. Tokyo is hundreds of miles from the 8.9-magnitude earthquake’s epicenter and the widespread devastation.

Pflugfelder was inside the National Diet Library when the earthquake struck.

“The fact that the library decided to let people stay an hour and a half past closing time was one of the first things that made me realize the scale of the disaster because that kind of departure from schedule, from the norms, is quite unusual,” he said.

The orderly lines that formed when the subway reopened around midnight also made an impression on Pflugfelder.

“Such social order and discipline are so enforced in ordinary times that I think it’s very easy for Japanese to kind of continue in the manner that they’re accustomed to, even under an emergency.”

The communitarian spirit at the foundation of Japanese culture seems to function even more efficiently under the stress of disaster, he said.

The natural American inclination is to operate independently.

“So you do everything you can to protect your own interests with the understanding that, in a rather free-market way, everybody else is going to do the same. And that order will come out of this sort of invisible hand.

“And Japanese don’t function that way. Order is seen as coming from the group and from the community as a sort of evening out of various individual needs.”

Will this social attitude help Japan recover from this disaster? "In a word, yes."

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Japan
soundoff (154 Responses)
  1. banasy

    No, anarchy isn't caused by Obama...it's the stupid mentality of people who think a sitting President is the cause of every ill in the world that causes anarchy.

    March 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Like the lib-tards did with bush? Oh no its only intolerance if the conservitives say negative things.

      March 13, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dennis Habern

      Obama is one taco, short of a full platter, if you follow. There will never be another

      Mulatto nor a woman president either. I believe that the American people have had enough of

      the interlopers, don't you?

      March 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy

    I can! :)

    March 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Justin

    "After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake which destroyed most of Tokyo"

    I would guess those people are dead, or very very very old, and will not be participating in any new riots.

    March 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Musomesa

      @Justin, sadly some people just can't let go of things even generations later. Reminds me of the idiots in Afghanistan who think they still need to fight the Crusades.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Californian

    I admire anyone who can maintain civility in the face of such a tragedy. What courage! Best wishes for a speedy recovery from this horrendous event.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Potato

    they believe in CAUSE and EFFECT. . . .understanding that every negative cause produces negative effect.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Carmela Romano

    Why does it always come down to the "racist" card? Why can't you all accept the fact that at least in this instance people are behaving like human beings and not animals?

    March 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • sankar.

      Animals are instinctive. Some animals also show empathy in distress too like crows elephants and apes monkeys. We should not be proud that we show civility in such situations. It is expected of us by the nature.

      March 13, 2011 at 4:45 am | Report abuse |
  7. Jackie

    I live in New Orleans and was unfortunately here after Katrina hit. It was a scary, horrible time, brought on by utter lawlessness, perpetrated by people who do not believe in any social order. "What's mine is mine, and what's yours should be mine too. Give it to me."

    It amazes me to see these people conducting themselves with such dignity in the face of this nightmare. My heart goes out to them.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry Naugle

      Very well expressed, on point with the article and the voice of experience, bravo! Thank you.

      March 13, 2011 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
    • bc

      The response by many in New Orleans was an embarassment to this country.

      March 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. banasy

    Thank you, Carmela and the others, for recognizing that grace and compassion is color-blind.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alex

    Based on the Author's first statement, I believe they should read "A Paradise Built in Hell". Most disasters bring out the humanity in everyone and that should not be overlooked. The media likes to portray things that will catch attention and ratings.

    "The layer of human turmoil – looting and scuffles for food or services – that often comes in the wake of disaster"

    March 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bob

    Americans are for the most part stupid, fat lazy retards. They let corporations walk all over them. There will be revolution in the US at some point or they will just eat themselves to death.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • T

      hahaha, true

      March 14, 2011 at 3:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Dennis Habern

      Hey Bob:

      I am waiting for the march on Washington, D.C. to take our country. I am not an advocate of demonstrations,

      but for this one, I will make the ultimate exception. Obama and his Commujnist crew, need to be removed from their

      positions, BEFORE 2012.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cman1982

    They don't have black people either. That is why they are better off.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. juiceman

    there is only one reason there isn't any looting.... No blacks..

    March 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John Stephen Dwyer

    Pflugfelder and White make some interesting points, although taken out-of-context for a 400-word article they seem, perhaps, a bit overstated.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. taro

    Only this place is peaceful, and I think that the riot occurs if it is Tokyo and Osaka.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • marie

      Hey Taro, I've experienced the Kobe earthquake disaster in 1995 which struck in the great metropolitan region including Osaka. There were naturally initial panic reactions, but no riots and people immediately pulled together in joint effort. Please have some compassion and send prayers to the victims trying to get through this latest tragedy.

      March 13, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • marie

      Hey Taro, I have experienced the Kobe earthquake disaster in 1995 which struck in the great metropolitan region including Osaka. There were naturally initial panic reactions but no riots and people immediately pulled together in joint effort. Please have some compassion and send prayers to the victims struggling to get through this latest tragedy.

      March 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Ash

    Hell, Americans kill and trample each other to buy useless consumer goods on Black Friday. We're a nation of me, me, me, and until we end that phenomenon, it will continue.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
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