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. satoshi


    March 16, 2011 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. kevin

    they do so because they are Americans or because they are not ....

    March 16, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jigoku

    Fukushima 50 and the samurai http://www.akban.org/blog_en/article/132

    March 17, 2011 at 5:02 am | Report abuse |
  4. jane

    Sorry but I remember the blackouts in NYC . Their was no looting and fires in my neighborhood. But the black neighborhoods were destroyed with looting and rioting etc. Now can anyone tell me why, OH and it was not because we were in a rich area, we were just in a white neighborhood!

    April 25, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
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