NATCHITOCHES, La. — March 14, 2011 - The absence of looting in Japan has taken many western observers by surprise.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans experienced looting on a scale that astonished even American cynics. After last year’s earthquake, the looting in Chile was serious enough to require military intervention.
There was looting in Haiti after its earthquake last year and in England during the 2007 floods.
So far, though, there is no looting reported from Japan.
Is it really that surprising? The politeness, honesty and orderly behavior of the Japanese are widely admired. A Brazilian friend in the jewelry business, under the influence of severe jet-lag, left an unlocked briefcase containing thousands of dollars in cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in gem stones on a Tokyo commuter train.
His host talked him out of cutting his wrists and escorted him to the next station served by the train, where the briefcase and its contents were waiting for him at the lost-and-found counter.
If stories like that are credible in Japan and unthinkable in New York, Paris or London, the question is, “why?”
There’s substantial internet chatter on the subject, and the chatter is disturbing. The answer most people seem to settle on is, “race.” Many argue that Japanese homogeneity is a strength, diversity a weakness. The Japanese aren’t looting because they’re all one big happy culture with none of the predation that occurs when people of different cultures look longingly at each others’ possessions.
Before you argue that tsunamis swept all their possessions away, remember that millions of people affected by the quake weren’t in the path of a tsunami.
A distressing number of writers have noted that there are few black, Hispanic or Arab people in Japan. As one put it, “Japanese do not loot, black Americans in Louisiana do. If that is a fact, how is it racist?”
A related idea is that Japanese culture is superior to those lesser cultures, less inclined to reward people who loot and riot. New Orleans is a largely black city; enough said, some might say.
Whether Japanese culture is superior to others is a question of values and perspective. The victims of Japanese atrocities in China might beg to differ, as might the builders of the bridge over the river Kwai and the “comfort women” conscripted from other Asian countries to entertain Japanese troops.
Those who blithely report on the social altruism of the Japanese seem never to have heard of Japanese criminal gangs like the Yakuza or of Japanese sex tourism in Thailand. And yet the general behavior of the Japanese people in this crisis is different than we would expect in the U.S., remarkably so, hence it invites speculation about the causes.
I reject racial explanations out of hand. Without any evidence of genomic differences yielding significant differences in behavior, the observation that New Orleans’ looters were largely black is indeed racist.
We might as well observe that they were mostly American, mostly Louisianan, and that very few had doctoral degrees. Those observations aren’t explanations, and to insinuate that they are is a slander.
Cultural explanations are much more to the point than racial explanations, but the correct ones probably have nothing to do with cultural (read “racial”) homogeneity or the superiority of Japanese culture in general. Consider, for instance, the fact that Japan is a very densely populated country of people who are taught that conformity and consensus are virtues.
To someone raised in a culture that prizes individualism and independence, those virtues sound almost offensive, yet they make much more sense in a place like Japan than in the sparsely populated American wild west. In the latter setting, the “cowboy” mentality has better survival value.
The Japanese national character is shaped by the interactions of necessity, environment and history that give it peculiar strengths and weaknesses, just as the French and American characters are shaped. To say that the Japanese aren’t looting because they’re “better” or racially mono-cultural ignores history and ignores the very serious problems Japan has faced before this weekend’s disaster.
In some ways their behavior will strike us as extraordinarily admirable. In others it will be, at best, baffling.
There are always tradeoffs, in cultures as in economies as in political institutions. There’s much to admire in Japanese culture, much that’s good and beautiful, just as there’s much to admire in a falcon or a shark. Launch a shark into the air over Colorado or release a falcon a hundred feet under the Pacific, and they seem less admirable.
Japanese culture hasn’t revealed itself as a superior culture, just one that’s well suited to maintaining public order immediately after a major disaster.
We can entertain ourselves endlessly speculating why the Japanese aren’t looting now. Perhaps they are, but they do it so politely we don’t notice in the videos of the disaster region. Perhaps concerns about appearance and obligation trump the urge to smash and grab.
Whatever the reasons, they speak to the variety of cultures and institutions in this world. They shouldn’t serve as excuses to gloat or to damn diversity.
James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love and there he stayed. Now he teaches, takes pictures, and with wife Lisa raises two children. A German Hispanic married to an Englishwoman, he’s a great fan of diversity, though as a German who also teaches Russian, he has to struggle with his constant urge to invade Poland. He tweets and has a blog at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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