Question 2: Why is it so hard for Westerners to understand the absence of wide-spread looting in Japan?

After the horrible earthquake and tsunami that wiped out the northeastern seaboard of Japan, making hundreds of thousands homeless, killing at least 18,000 people, and leaving stores empty of basic supplies, Westerners felt a wave of respect for the people of Japan, as one question made the rounds of Western media: Why is there no looting in Japan?

Ed West posed the question in his blog for The Telegraph, noting the “impressive” way in which the Japanese had banded together in a communal effort “to survive.”

And solidarity seems especially strong in Japan itself. Perhaps even more impressive than Japan’s technological power is its social strength, with supermarkets cutting prices and vending machine owners giving out free drinks as people work together to survive. Most noticeably of all, there has been no looting…

West’s blog post sparked an avalanche of comments, as well as commentary from other journalists and bloggers. It was largely understood to be a cultural difference, born of a more communal spirit in the DNA of Japanese culture.

Of course, the kind of questions we ask reveal a lot about the kind of people, or culture, we are. One might as easily ask:

Why was there looting in New Orleans after Katrina? Why was there looting after the 2007 floods in England? Why was there looting after last year’s earthquake in Chile?

Why, in fact, do we expect looting of the non-survival variety to be an almost inevitable result of a natural disaster? Is it because it is difficult for most of us in the West to wrap our minds around the concept of a society in which the greater good trumps individual comfort? Is it because we in America live in a society where “me-ology” was once taught in schools, and where being respected is often held up as a more important goal than showing respect for others?

The Wall Street Journal put a kink in the collective awe of Japan when it reported on March 22 that, 10 days after the tsunami, residents of Sendai took juice and other goods that were laid out on the ground outside of the warehouse of Kirin’s Brewery. The goods had been swept out of the warehouse during the tsunami. Even this article, however, notes that “most of the looting incidents appear to target necessities in tight supply after the disaster, such as food and gasoline, rather than durable goods.”

This incident raises another question, one which very much was on my mind after Katrina: Can it be considered looting if hungry, thirsty people are taking food, water, and blankets in order to feed their children and families and stay warm and sheltered? Is it looting if they are only trying to survive? For me, the answer was as simple in the case of New Orleans as it is in the case of Sendai: while taking food and water after a natural disaster may qualify as “stealing,” it is by no means looting. (Of course, I am aware that this distinction reeks of relativism. I am also aware that, if my son was hungry, I would steal for him, natural disaster or no. It’s a very slippery slope, this hunger business, because it raises a larger question about poverty in America and about how one weighs one’s own potential actions against the real actions of others: if I would steal to feed my son, how can I hold other parents accountable for breaking the law to feed their children?)

But to return to the subject of looting: looting did take place in the aftermaths of Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Stores were broken into, robbed of TVs and refrigerators and furniture and clothes. I remember reports of this type of looting in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, after Hurricane Frederic in 1979. Looting, during hurricane season, was invariably preceded by hoarding: every time a “big one” was on the way, the lines at the gas stations would stretch down the street, the grocery store shelves would quickly empty of distilled water, and the hardware stores would immediately sell out of generators and two by fours, the latter of which were used to board up windows in the still, quiet hours before the storm.

I was a child at the time, but as an adult, I can’t say I’m innocent of stocking up. When the swine flu scare was afoot a couple of years ago, as the terrified mother of a young child for whom I was unable to get the vaccine, I bought two boxes of medical-grade face masks (in the end, we didn’t use the masks, and my preschooler succumbed frighteningly to H1N1 anyway; I seriously doubt the masks would have done much good even if we had used them). When the radiation scare hit the West Coast, I discovered that pharmacies had sold out of potassium iodide, and what did I do in my gathering nervousness? I went to Trader Joe’s and bought six packs of dried seaweed–which, I’m fairly certain, would be no greater shield against radiation than face masks are against H1N1. It was simply a knee-jerk reaction, born of the fear of not being able to protect my child.

All of which brings me to a more sobering question, one that those of us in Northern California–in fact, all of the U.S.–ought to be asking ourselves: when the next big one hits, whether it is an earthquake, or a tsunami, or a nuclear disaster–how will we behave?

And, a question especially for parents: what laws or moral codes would you not be willing to break in order to feed your children given the following conditions: a) they are truly hungry and b) there is no other way to provide for them.

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2 Responses to Question 2: Why is it so hard for Westerners to understand the absence of wide-spread looting in Japan?

  1. Jerriann Graff says:

    I also think I would “steal” to feed my child in a disaster. To me the people in Japan need those things to survive so it’s not really stealing. The looting in the other countries, including the United States was completely wrong, you don’t need a T.V., refrigerator, or stereo system to survive, that was absolutly wrong. To me taking those kinds of things was out right stealing. I could never understand that, they had no where to live but they were going to steal a T.V., how crazy was that…
    I love your new blog and am going to try and check in each day…

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jerriann. I’m so glad you like the blog! I plan to update it at least once a week–there’s an rss feed link you can click if you want to be alerted to new posts. Y

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