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)

    PLEASE STOP ALL THIS.Let's for the human lives lost.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |

    PLEASE STOP ALL THIS.Let's pray for the human lives lost.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrDLoomis

      Pray? Pray? Why pray? Wasn't this an "Act of God?"

      Praying to the perpetrator of this merciless carnage is assinine.

      Let's see...we should pray to the God who just slaughtered a bunch of people to take care if their souls. Or, perhaps we pray to God to spare the lives of the suffering survivors.

      I think not.

      March 13, 2011 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • MrDLoomis

      I can't fathom the selective thinking of people. My God is the most merciful and just God. I'll ignore the fact that he just brutally killed a bunch of people, so I'll pray to him because he is so merciful to everyone and is so just and good. I'll ignore the fact that he is the creator of all of this mass pain and suffering, and pray to him to take care of everyone.

      Religion is nonsense.

      March 13, 2011 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Celeste

      hey MrDLoomis, you are an idiot. You don't have God. It is not God's fault. It is human's fault for not taking care well of the nature. That is why we have disasters in this world. Human's stupidity. So, don't blame HIM. Remember, we are all like sailors in this world. Life on earth is just temporary. Get it? Pray

      March 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • GOD

      to Celeste "It is human's fault for not taking care well of the nature. That is why we have disasters in this world."

      My daughter, you seem to have a fundemental misunderstanding of the role humans are to play. Nowhere in any of my teachings to humanity have I stated that it was the responsibility of humans to go down to the sea floor and regularly maintain the subduction zones between different continental plates so that energy isn't built up over the course of centuries and then suddenly released.

      It is not within your limited ability to affect this world that I have created in any meaningful way such as that. It is certainly not within your ability to prevent these diasters, no matter how well you 'take care' of Nature or 'abuse' it. The results will be the same.

      March 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • KAMI (Kami Association of Mainland Ippon)

      To MrDLoomis: "Pray? Pray? Why pray? Wasn't this an "Act of God?"

      Praying to the perpetrator of this merciless carnage is assinine.

      Let's see...we should pray to the God who just slaughtered a bunch of people to take care if their souls."

      The Kami Association of Mainland Ippon would like to make it clear to MrDLoomis and all reading that we, the myriad Kami, are in no way, shape, or form responsible for the earthquake or subsequent tsunamis. The truth is that very few of us have any power over the sea, and such sea-controlling power rarely extends for a large distance from the coast. In additional many of our number have suffered similarly to humans from the effects of the disaster as our shrines and sacred places have been displaced or destroyed.

      If you are looking for the parties responsible for the disaster I suggest you contact the oceanic dragons at the Bureau of East Ocean Affairs.

      March 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    The same nationalism lead to horrendously brutal treatment of the Chinese. I'm surprised that the level of community and cooperation that actually occurs in US disasters is completely dismissed while confirmation bias runs through this article like a razor. Oh God .. Katrina .. because that is the ONLY disaster and is completely representative of Americans.

    March 13, 2011 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Denise Barber

      Ummm – Haiti's been in a Katrina mode for 2000 year.s They share the same space with the Dominican Republic. The Domincns don't have the chronic issues the Haitians have. Why is that?

      March 15, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Phil

    I think "alienation" is the key factor here. But not specifically economic alienation. Here is Asia, people feel like they are part of one community and actively seek to gain recognition from others. In the USA, there seems to be a history of excluding members of the community, such as Blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Irish, Muslims...etc..Since these groups feel they are outside of the dominant community they don't feel guilt about causing destruction to their own society. However, I think you would see just as orderly response from other, less-divided, Western countries. You don't see rioting in Canada or Germany.

    March 13, 2011 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      There was the terrible incidence in Duisburg last year though

      Not exactly a riot but it shows a clear difference between self-preservation and community preservation culture.

      March 13, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
    • S

      Or... Wisconsin.

      March 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Denise Barber

      Doug – you've just given an excellent reaos why very different people should keep apart. Thanks!

      March 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Forreal

    The people of Louisiana need to take note of how the people acted instead of looting and destroying

    March 13, 2011 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
  6. DeadDolphin

    God hates dolphin killers.

    March 13, 2011 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. エルダーブラザー

    I writing poor English.
    Thank you world supporter!



    March 13, 2011 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
    • c

      Praying praying praying for you !!!!!

      March 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • bc

      the world is praying for you all.

      March 13, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • JD

      You are most welcome! I hope your honorable people receive all the help they need. We can learn much from your people.

      March 13, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • John L

      You are in our thoughts and prays. We wish you the best.

      March 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jazz

      I pasted this into a translater and i still couldnt make sense of what you said but I am praying for u as well ,brother

      March 13, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • A Friend

      We're all praying for each of you!

      March 14, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Vanessa


      March 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. forest

    It is because it is more efficient to stand in a line rather than it scrambles. Although there was an earthquake even in Tokyo, the person who escaped during the meal at the restaurant also returned, and the charge was paid.

    March 13, 2011 at 3:31 am | Report abuse |
  9. Matsuyo

    Poverty =Looting

    March 13, 2011 at 5:19 am | Report abuse |
  10. Brian

    Once again more solid and obvious proof that race is a factor in such situations. I bet the libtards are really scratching their heads to explain this one.

    March 13, 2011 at 5:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Asa

      Well, yes...and no. It's culture that is factor, not race.

      March 17, 2011 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  11. Brian

    That's because there's no black people

    March 13, 2011 at 5:28 am | Report abuse |
    • MrDLoomis

      Well said.

      March 13, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • bc

      Amen! There is no looting going on over there, no begging for help, no crying for the Govt to save them. Whats the difference you ask? hmmm ...

      March 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Neontetra

    They know, if I wait in the queue ,I will get food and supplies certainly.
    For everyone's conditions is same.

    They aren't do useless action. That's all.

    March 13, 2011 at 5:30 am | Report abuse |
  13. laughing duck

    The picture above looks like people ripe for a ghetto style drive-by. They have ghettos?

    March 13, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  14. chakzulu

    A chain is only as strong as its weakest chink.....

    March 13, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  15. Cesar

    @MrDLoomis: Hi. Mr. Loomis, you are a doofus.

    March 13, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
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