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. Jennifer

    Looting is not a something that happens only in America. It happens world wide. We saw it in Haiti following the quake there.

    March 13, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  2. hank1975

    Remember Pearlharbor, we shouldnt be helping out a third world nation who thought they would strike fear into us with a weak sneak attack. We must remember god is on our side, he is mearly getting revenge for his children. Since our president has mistakingly sent troops we should be checking for WMDs since they have nuclear power and were probably going to do a pearl harbor 2.0 to try and get reasorces out of other countrys and look for natureal reasorces that we can claim when their population disapears from the wrath of god.

    March 14, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • hank1975

      They are only acting like this to catch us offguard who knows what a thirdworld country will do with their back against the wall. We should really be looking for WMDs now we know they have nuclear capability and they also have biological weapon if you remember they tested it on their own people a couple years back(also shows how ruthless and vicious they can be if we leave them unchecked). however they are not believers of god and will always fall short(no pun intended)like evry other third world terrorist acts in the end we will always win. Remember pearlharbor

      March 14, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
    • brian

      um... you're a freak, get off the internet and go do something crazy

      March 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. f

    There is nada to loot

    March 14, 2011 at 2:18 am | Report abuse |
  4. nih

    that's because they are not americans.

    March 14, 2011 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
  5. Forever me

    From these comments can tell why " looting" happen in the states.
    Many people here are writing nonsense selfish comments.

    March 14, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  6. muhammad X. Cheeks

    looting in america has one color,and it is blak

    March 14, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  7. a

    Laws are a sign of an order and stability already recognized. Under emergency, the strength of this stability should remain – an indicator of its legitimacy, through social understanding. It is not as if under times of disaster everything starts again at ground zero and we are back in the state of nature, everyone for themselves. I love the comparison to dramatic Americans – in resorting to chaos, the disaster is made bigger than the people, the culture, the country. In some ways this is true, but following in that way rejects any sort of recovery as we know and want it.

    March 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. deweycheatemnhowe

    Wouldn't it be nice if mainstream media and social networking spent as much time and energy tracking stories like this, as it does on Charlie Sheen? Any means to bring remorse or shame to criminals is welcome.

    March 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. marc gunn

    this attribute is found throughout asia... think Taiwan and Sichuan, China earthquake, etc.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:27 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ananth

    Felt great knowing this but was sad that God is putting these nice people in distress!

    March 15, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  11. richwood7

    And I bet there will be little fraud after the disaster unlike Katrina were thousands tried to scam the government. We have a very pathetic culture and it is only getting worse.

    March 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jack

    I keep reading "Only Americans are the looters, cause violence, etc..." That's not true. "Americans" aren't doing that..."CERTAIN AMERICANS" are the ones doing that. There was flooding in New England, and in the Dakotas. I seen everyone working together, helping each other. Not one instance of looting or violence. We only see that behavior in places like New Orleans and Oakland, after the earthquake there.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tim Stidham

    K A R M A, too bad the whole world does not believe!

    March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Keith

    Buddha doesn't need anything

    March 16, 2011 at 1:47 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mang Thomas Vaiphei

    wow.. its really wonderfull people.. let the mighty God give all the garce to you all.. hope this love will bring into a real being that all will know that we are the children of God.. trough the love of Jesus Christ... i shared the grive here.. praying for you all...,

    March 16, 2011 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
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