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. Mel

    Thank you for addressing a fact that could have been largely overlooked & not reported. In spite of these tragic events the culture still shines;serves as an example of the human spirit and their unique almost forgotten morals.

    March 13, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Pixburgh Pixie

    Some of the comments here are comparing situations of apples to situations of oranges. There are SO MANY factors that go into how/why people act the way they do when faced with a natural disaster. We should all be grateful for such orderly responses when they do happen, both on the part of the government and its citizens.

    March 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. c

    Racist is the most over used word in this decade. For crying out loud. If data shows a particular poplutation to be prone to looting or not looting than that is what it is. Data is neither racist or non racist, it is data.

    March 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. john l

    A wonderful and respectful culture. The world should live by their example. God bless them all and keep them safe.

    March 13, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. GBailey

    Don't know where he was on 9/11 but the reaction to the worst disaster ever on U.S. soil was nearly universally altruistic – in the most diverse and class stratified city in America.

    March 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. lotuguy

    Of course..this is no katrina. Interesting that a country that doesn't yak about religion can be so civilized..

    March 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. A Word of Wisdom

    I appreciate a forum wherein I can read how off the rocker so many people are.

    March 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. A Word of Wisdom

    Looting has poverty, frustration, and lack of community as it root cause. Looting has not been and never will be confined to America or one race or culture. All reasonably intelligent people who read should know this.

    March 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. A Word of Wisdom

    There is no looting not because there are no Black people, there is no looting because they subscribe to the notion that all people deserve respect even Black people. Americans could learn from such a value system. Then and only then race would not be such a determining factor or predictor of outcomes.

    March 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Chofu former resident

    I lived in the western suburbs of Tokyo for eight fascinating years. This article is correct: they obey the law and respect others. There is hardly any crime against persons. One can walk on dark streets late and not worry. Once I thought I heard someone breaking into my home in the wee hours. I simply rolled over in bed thinking, "Oh, well, they won't have a gun and they mean no harm against me." Almost no one has guns, usually only legitimate hunters and cops.

    Kids do not get carded in a bar or liquor store. Why? They know it is their responsibility to obey the law and not buy any alcohol before the age of majority (20 years).

    Additionally, they are so polite that nearly every sentence has a form of "please" included in it. Also, can you imagine a national holiday named "Respect for the Aged Day"?

    We Americans can continute to learn much from others, including the people of the land of the rising sun. Ganbattei ! (Good luck!)

    March 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ebina former resident

      I can confirm this. I lived in Ebina for 12 years. It was fantastic. After being stateside for the last 5 years, I am currently looking for work to go back.

      You will see stores there that have their sale items on table in front of the outside of the store. The owner most likely is inside doing something else. Nobody will steal anything. Never find that here.

      They aren't looting and pillaging the place because it makes no sense. All it does it make the situation worse for everyone, in the U.S. it happens because nobody actually cares about the other guy, only themselves.

      I do recall watching the news over there, and most of the news about crime was from other places. They do have crime over there, but it is so infrequent that they wouldn't have enough for a 15 minute broadcast twice a week.

      March 14, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  11. Sagebrush Shorty.

    She attributes looting in America largely to " social alienation and class gaps ". That's about as politically correct as you can get.

    March 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Johnny Appleseed

    The very word "racist" is a Marxist term popularized by none other than freedom-hating Liberal super-hero, Leon Trotski. Which is worse, to be a Marxist or a racist? I'm really not sure!

    March 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Vanessa

      The first post-Classical published classification of humans into distinct races seems to be François Bernier's Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l'habitent ("New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it"), published in 1684.

      You know you should check your facts before you spout off, Marco Polo actually used the term upon meeting the Persians. So you are wrong!!

      March 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dan

    So what does that say about the "deep cultural roots" of the hood rats after katrina...oh im sure looting raping murdering and shooting at the national guard rescue helicopters is all just part of "keepin it real yo"

    March 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Tony

    I wonder what would have happened if this happened in North Korea.

    March 13, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dennis Habern

      Nobody would send assistance.

      March 15, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Meeker

    Community spirit goes out the window when people are trying to get onto a train in the mornings!
    Today's commute was pretty hellish, but I'm thankful that at least here in Tokyo my office and my home are still standing.

    March 13, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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