The Tōhoku earthquake in Japan has caused unprecedented economic, social, and human damage—as many as 30,000 people may be dead and as much as $400 billion may be needed for recovery. In the wake of such catastrophic destruction it is hard to find the strength to search for a silver lining. But one positive headline has emerged: the near-total absence of looting and crime in the Tōhoku region.
As the scale of the disaster became clear, widespread fears of looting and violence began to spread. It isn’t hard to see why. A natural disaster shatters the ordinary social order that binds society together. With the law hundreds of miles away, it can be tempting to do what you think must be done, especially since your own need may be so dire. If you saw people break into a store to steal a television so that they could sell it and use the money to rebuild their house, could you really blame them?
There is a long history to support these fears. Many Americans were shocked by the wide-scale looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but similar looting has taken place after numerous natural disasters around the world. Japan has largely been an exception. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and thirty-three-foot-tall waves failed to disrupt the social solidarity of the Japanese people. Even with a series of aftershocks pounding the coast, Japanese people continue to help one another and confront adversity with courage.
It’s a myth that there has been no looting in Japan. Sporadic reports of looting have come from several Japanese news outlets. A translated article from 47 News in Japan cites forty known cases in Miyagi Prefecture, with similar reports coming from other major Japanese newspapers. Still, the scale of looting has been limited and minimal. For the most part, the Japanese people seem to be doing their best to uphold order. Interviews with stricken residents at shelters have shown their fear and their confusion, but little anger at the government or any kind of violence. There is a desperate and widespread need for medical supplies and equipment, but foreign correspondents have been shocked by the calm of many survivors.
A cartoon version of these events already made its way through U.S. cable news: the Japanese people, it is said, are a communal, stoic, and orderly sort; it is not in their culture to loot or steal. These remarks are simplistic and unhelpful. The Japanese people are diverse and complex—they cannot be reduced to these generalizations. Nevertheless, it is true that Japanese culture, reinforced by Japan’s social institutions, has played an important part in the relative absence of looting.
There are many structural causes of the order displayed in Japan. Japan has an expansive and visible police force that spans across the country. Police in Japan are less militarized and more community-oriented than police in the United States. A survey taken in 1992 found that 95 percent of residents knew the location of their local police express station, and 14 percent knew the name of a local officer. Japanese police are unusually well-paid and provided with extensive government benefits. Moreover, the police actively monitor and investigate even small crimes, like vandalism.
One part of Japanese police officers’ approach to to law enforcement are the kōban. Kōban—police boxes where community officers are based—are a common sight in every city and throughout the countryside. Kōban police know their communities intimately and work closely with them. The kōban tradition goes back over a century; there are now over 15,000 across the country.
Japanese are also used to giving priority to the interests of the law. Residents in the community are encouraged by a number of cultural channels (from anime to detective films) to respect and assist the police in investigations of even smaller cases. In turn, police are given wide discretion to make judgment calls in line with community values, especially in cases for juveniles.
Beyond the police, the Yakuza—Japanese organized-crime syndicates—patrol neighborhoods in an effort to suppress petty theft and other kinds of crime. The Yakuza enjoy an unusual legitimacy in Japan that partly stems from their role during the feudal period as a kind of mutual defense society. Yakuza families take this vision of their organization seriously: one of the main groups has already shipped nearly fifty tons of aid, and another has opened its offices to displaced residents. After a terrible earthquake in Kobe in 1995, the Yamaguchi-gumi, one of the largest and most feared Yakuza organizations in Japan, provided a broad range of disaster relief services, including the use of a helicopter. With the Japanese government moving slowly, and with international shipments of aid delayed, the Yamaguchi-gumi were often the first on the scene to help.
Additionally, as has been reported by magazines like Slate, the Japanese criminal justice system actively rewards honesty. If you return missing property in Japan you receive a reward, sometimes worth more than the value of the item originally lost. A rite of passage for Japanese schoolchildren begins with the discovery of a missing item, even one of trivial value like a small coin or souvenir. Children bring the lost item to the local kōban. The children are then encouraged to file a formal report and document the missing item. If the owner is found, the children often have an opportunity to meet the owner and hear his or her thanks personally—along with the thanks of the police officer in charge. If the owner cannot be found, the child is invited to keep the item or to donate it to a good cause—again with the grateful blessing of the local officer.
The idea behind this approach is a thorough reinforcement of the importance of order combined with a belief that the behavior of everyone is needed to keep society together. The Japanese criminal code, which penalizes non-cooperation and many kinds of obstruction, is designed to enforce these cultural standards. Good Samaritan laws in Japan, for example, often mandate assistance. You can sometimes be found criminally liable simply for not helping.
The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami has been a catastrophe on a scale unseen in generations in Japan. We will be talking about the rebuilding efforts for years. Still, for now, it is inspiring to see the way that the Japanese people are handling these awful circumstances. Through a combination of social spirit, a more community-oriented police force, and a culture focused on the rule of law, the Japanese people are showing the world the best of the Japanese spirit.