Why Is There No Looting In Japan?

Jack Cafferty, a CNN commentator, noticed something interesting. Amidst the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there have been no reports of looting. He contrasts that to other recent disasters:

One heart-wrenching byproduct of disasters like this one has been missing in Japan, and that’s looting and lawlessness.

Looting is something we see after almost every tragedy; for example: last year’s earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the floods in England in 2007, and of course Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

Then he poses the question: Why is there no looting in Japan? Here are my $0.02:

UPDATE: There clearly IS looting in Japan. So take this piece as a wannabe-academic exercise to explain a false phenomenon. Hat tip to commenters oh_snap_its_tom and ErikaHarada for pointing these links out.

It’s the Japanese culture.

The Japanese culture tends to value societal collectivism over individualism. It’s also a highly honorific society that favors rational-secular values, though the latter probably doesn’t have much to do about the lack of looting. Allow me to explain:

Societal Collectivism vs Individualism

Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania publishes a comprehensive cultural study called the GLOBE Study, which is an analysis of cultural, societal, organizational, and leadership differences between 62 different societies around the world. Similar to personality tests such as Myers-Briggs and Keirsey, the GLOBE Study breaks their analysis down into nine cultural dimensions, among other things. The nine are:

  • Performance orientation
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Humane orientation
  • Societal collectivism
  • In-group collectivism
  • Assertiveness
  • Gender egalitarianism
  • Future orientation
  • Power distance

Japan is among the highest-rated for societal collectivism and in-group collectivism.

Societal collectivism is:

The degree to which organizational and societal institutional practices encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action.

In-group collectivism is:

The degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty and cohesiveness in their organizations or families.

Japan also rated among the lowest for assertiveness.

In general, collectivist cultures tend to be “we” and “us” cultures. They rank shared goals higher than individual desires and goals, preferring to subordinate personal wishes to those of the relevant social unit.

The United States, in contrast, is on the other end of the spectrum. We have an individualistic culture that is more about “I” and “me.” Priority is given to individual freedom and choice over the collective unit.

In the GLOBE Study, the U.S. also rated among the highest in performance orientation, assertiveness.

Japan’s culture of collectivism is part of the story of why looting is lacking. Looting is a selfish act that improves your well-being at the expense of another’s. On a fundamental level, that’s not in their cultural grain (though I’m sure exceptions exist).

However, I don’t think collectivism is the full story. Reports about looting in the aftermath of China’s Qinghai earthquake in 2010 are sketchy at best. (According to that link, sparse looting did happen, but are further reports of looting being covered up or really did not happen? I haven’t been able to find reports from other collectivist countries.)

An Honorific Society

You can tell a lot about a people by their language. The words in one’s vocabulary subtly influence one’s frame of mind, both in the limits of the vocabulary and grammatical structures and idioms of the language.

Japanese is an honorific language. You use different words in different contexts. Japanese has three main categories of contexts:

  • Sonkeigo: respectful language
  • Kenjogo: humble or modest language
  • Teineigo: polite language

In other words, you could say the same thing in three entirely different ways, depending on who you are addressing. Each has its own vocabulary and verb endings. It is considered disrespectful to use the incorrect form. Not speaking politely enough can be insulting. Speaking too politely can be distancing or seem sarcastic.

With such a fundamental form of communication, it’s not a surprise to see the Japanese culture imbued with respect, politeness and formality. Perhaps this nature saved many lives as well.

The honorific traits of Japanese culture is the other part of the story. But I think it goes a little deeper than 1 + 1 = 2.

Harmony and “Wa”

The word “Wa” is the oldest recorded name of Japan, according to ancient Chinese texts. In the 8th century, Japan change its meaning to be “harmony, peace & balance.” I think that’s a telling change. Also, Wa may have been used in a derogatory way by the Chinese, so it’s not a surprise that it was changed. But it’s the new meaning that I think has some significance.

If you take a culture that holds the group above the individual, and places an importance on respect and politeness, you get a culture that strives for harmony, peace & balance. One could also say you get a culture of “don’t rock the boat,” but every trait can be a double-edged sword.

The international blog Global Sherpa relates several interesting stories about how Wa translates to everyday behavior in Japan:

While visiting and living in Japan, I had several occasions to marvel at the inherent trustworthiness of Japanese strangers. I once accidentally left a book at a Kinko’s near Tokyo station on a business trip. By the time I got back to my hotel down the block and realized the book was missing a short while later, the Kinko’s staff had already returned the book to the hotel’s front desk.

On another trip to Japan, I somehow managed to leave a shirt and the equivalent of about $20 in change in my hotel room. When I returned to the hotel on another trip about six months later, the front desk person promptly pulled out a neatly wrapped plastic package containing everything I had left behind last visit.

It turns out my experience is far from unique. Mikako Kato, a Tokyo magazine editor, lost her wallet five times in 14 years according to a CNN article by Yuki Oda. Every time, the wallet was returned to her, complete with her credit and identification cards and even a “good deal of cash.”

His article is a fascinating account of the Lost and Found collections in Japan.

So why is there no looting in Japan?

Societal collectivism, an honorific nature, and Wa are what I see as the reasons for the lack of looting in the wake of Japan’s earthquake & tsunami.

There are pros and cons to these traits of course. I don’t mean to hold them up as models we all need to follow. The assertiveness and individualism in the U.S. has lead to numerous innovations and advances, arguably leading to our rise as a global superpower. So we must be doing something right.

But to answer Cafferty’s question: It’s the Japanese culture.

[Photo credit: Daily Mail]

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About Mike

I'm an idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student. And what, you want to Internet-stalk me too? Why, sure.
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