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. Peter

    This is only one of the reason why Asians are the best.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mitchell

      I think you'll find a similar spirit of cooperation if you review stories about the flooding in the Upper Mid West a few years ago, as well as the Nashville flooding. Hmmm, those folks don't seem Asian, but those areas also aren't particularly 'diverse'.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Young

      In another news article CNN has reported empty shelves in Tokyo, attributed to alleged hoarding/over-stocking of food by the citizens of Tokyo fearing food shortages.........so much for the thinking of community and oneness! I am an asian (south-asian rather) immigrant in the US and am always amazed at the orderly way American board the buses and trains. So, lets not try to generalize.......whatever happened in post-katrina does not imply that Americans are selfish and self-centered. Individual American citizens are the biggest contributes to charities world wide. Hope that conveys something to this news writer.....whoever he/she is.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • yourfeararetrue

      I guess this just means that they are more respectful of one another, not only that but they are also meaningfully well off that nobody has to behave in a misguided manner.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • new york

      That’s a good thing, but the article is attributing all the credit for selective cooperation strictly on a cultural basis. The sense of nationality that most individuals feel toward their country in time of disaster is not racial or entirely cultural, it’s Nationalistic. Its nationalistic when the citizens of a country bond together besides differences to fight against injustice as in Egypt recently; its nationalistic for citizens to find their common bond and fight against slavery within their own countries such as in West African nations; nationalistic to rebuilt Germany after WW2, nationalistic to rebuild America after 911, and bush (lol). It’s common nature to look out for your neighbor and to say differently means that the writer of this article needs to take a second look and maybe stop feeding the “selfish monster.” Words have power.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      This story is borderline 'racist' in some sections by implication and the comments on here including the ladies comment about diversity in the midwest are blatantly 'racist'.
      I myself believe people's behavior is more closely linked to HOW they are raised and their environment rather than the minute genetic differences that we use to separate ourselves into "races" and "ethnicities" whatever the f that is supposed to be... When aliens from another planet arrive on Earth I'll reconsider your ignorant comment about "diversity".

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

      "This story is borderline 'racist' in some sections by implication and the comments on here including the ladies [sic, and sic] comment about diversity in the midwest are blatantly 'racist'."

      I am a man, and the possessive of lady is lady's

      As for 'racist', well, that's your opinion. The political scientist Robert Putnam has shown(to his chagrin) that 'diversity' does destroy social capital and social trust.

      March 13, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      In an attempt to be super intellectual you may have just put together the most unintelligiable nonsense ive ever read. Your comment in and of itself should be the only thing mentioned at the next state of the union since it says all we need to know. Your a scrub.

      March 13, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      P.s. Not directed at mitchell but the original comment

      March 13, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Denise Barber

      Andew – where does culture come from? Why did Black police officers, in New Orleans, join right in with the looting?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Rock

      Asians? Including Koreans and Chinese? What have you been smoking? Have you ever been to those countries?

      March 13, 2011 at 1:29 am | Report abuse |
  2. Vernunft

    Oh, so that's why blacks loot – too much libertarianism. Perhaps someone should tell them they keep pulling the wrong lever at election time, then?

    March 12, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jeff

    After the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake which destroyed most of Tokyo, there was complete chaos and lawlessness which led to the massacre of 1,000s of Koreans and other minorities.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • mac

      True, but then, the military police and the imperial government intentionally spread rumors about
      rioting Koreans and communists in the hope that that could deflect people's frustration.
      It was a really ugly incident, admittedly, but it was not spontaneous "chaos" per se in that the government
      was scheming to create it.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • jj rawlings

      Yes Jeff, and in 1923 you were probably digging up corpses for dinner and eating ur own poop. Good thing its 2011 huh?

      March 12, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • KM

      You must be Jeff Kim

      March 13, 2011 at 6:13 am | Report abuse |
    • CookieJP

      Fact of Great Kanto Earthquake.

      Criminality by Korean happened frequently.
      Mysteriously,Korean increases after the earthquake.

      What is the beginning of the Los Angeles riot?

      March 13, 2011 at 7:08 am | Report abuse |
    • TAKA

      What do you want to tell us?

      March 13, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Anon

      According to your stupid logic ,Germans today are all still Nazi Killers of Humanity.STFU and keep your ego to yourself nobody gives a damn.

      March 13, 2011 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  4. doug

    The reason many people did not turn out to help in Katrina is that they saw a whole bunch of thugs acting like animals. Always blaming someone else for their problems and expecting a hand out. Wake up people. No one is putting you in slavery now except yourselves. Show some dignity.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • ROME

      Your monkey hin-pots would act the same if you were poor . Whites act the same way too...they panic

      March 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • jj rawlings

      I think NASCAR is on Doug, why don't u go pop the beer, kick the cat, beat the wife and kids, make love to ur mom, slump back in your lazy boy, and enjoy the show.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      Your wonderful display of "tolerance" is astounding. Oh if all of us could be as enlightened as you are...

      March 13, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • irishjhw

      You took the words right out of my mouth.....

      March 12, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • dMan

      It seems U R blaming someone else for your unwillingness to help, U "judge" a large group of people based on the actions of a few, and if U have any religion U should know "judging" another person is wrong, U have no Idea of their motivations or life experiences.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ace

    Jeff do u having some sources to back it up. I cannot find anything on the internet.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      Ace, You will find a important piece of history that Jess has mentioned on above link.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      A few other articles if you are interested:

      March 12, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • CelticsDude

      there is a truth to that...check this out - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1923_Great_Kantō_earthquake

      March 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jailpot

      Hmmm. Very interesting.
      Some people learns from the history but some people doesn`t, like your country....
      Be peacefull guys. Nobody will harm you.

      March 13, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ali

    This is only one reminder as to how lawless and corrupt the blacks in this country are. I blame it on the break down of family tradition and heritage. These days, black kids don't even know who their fathers ARE, so how can you expect them to worry about shaming their family name by doing something so trashy as looting?

    March 12, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • lovebug@2012

      with the name Ali. I would hope that you are not a Muslim. Because if your are you should not be speaking in such a tone about any people that Allah has created. Just thought that you may need a reminder. If you are a Muslim

      March 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • CelticsDude

      Please don't singled out a specific race, breakdown of morality happens with asian, middle eastern, whites, etc. etc.....too, a persons actions is his or her responsibility, not because he or she happens to be black. I am Asian and not all of us are good in math.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Musomesa

      It has more to do with understanding the social contract. Reminds me of the book "Lord of the Flies". Do they make kids read books any more at school?

      March 12, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Vernunft

    u mad?

    March 12, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. hmmm

    heartwarming to know they have a culture of fraternity. lessons to stake stock.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joe

    Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate. Can you guys just quit it for once?

    March 12, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tomkio

      we are living in one world.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bobby Bobberson

      lol, on the *internet*? You want people to be respectful of this horrific tragedy...*on the internet?!*

      I think they should be very proud of themselves for their earthquake engineering, can't imagine how many more people could have died, but this is a long way from over.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. NemoBusy

    they are human and they respect being human ...I hope they recover as quick as possible ..

    March 12, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • new york

      Well said.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • bc

      they aren't American! Only in American is there looting and unrest in face of a disaster. Aren't we (or some) pathetic?

      March 13, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Nikki

    Katrina is not a place, it is the name of the hurricane that affected New Orleans.

    Let's just hope the people suffering from these catastrophes will be able to get back to normalcy asap. We don't know where or when the next earthquake, major hurricane, etc will strike.

    March 12, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  12. fierybuddha

    wowsers. impressive.

    March 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |

    I didnt know such ignorant and rascist animals even followed the news. I am suprised you can even read or write. Say something constructive or please just keep your opinions to yourself. I understand that to have the freedom of press is to have the freedom of stupidy. Its people like...........

    March 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vernunft






      Remind me who can and can't write. I'm getting confused!

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

      Callin' racist folks stupid an ignorant, sayin' they can't read an are no better than animals... Sounds like it's own form of bigotry. You lookin' fer someone to hate, an you just picked the most socially acceptable target. Fer shame.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Venicementor

      I don't understand what you are saying/mean. Perhaps there is a medication increase needed, yes?

      March 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. zongzi


    March 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. loki

    That is good to see. Thanks goodness they do not have Obama as their prime minister. And the libs. It would be anarchy

    March 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bobby Bobberson

      Because *your* way of life MUST BE *my* way of life! Right?! No, I can't make my own decisions, I have to conform to *YOUR* rules, right?

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

      No Obama, but they do have socialized medicine and the gap between the lowest paid workers and the highest is a fraction of what it is in the US. This amazing culture has engineered a society that spreads the wealth more equally...there is little to no poverty. Sounds more Obama-esque than even he could pull off!

      March 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vanessa

      No, I would think you wouldn't like them, most are atheists, and believe in the community of humans (OMG, kinda like communism).

      March 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
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