Looting in Japan: Why so little looting in Japan? The explanation is legal as much as cultural.

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
March 16 2011 6:27 PM

Stop, Thief! Thank You.

Why so little looting in Japan? It's not just about honesty.

Kamaishi, Iwate after devastating earthquake. Click image to expand.
Japanese earthquake victim

If your home was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a tsunami, and radiation from a nuclear power plant, you'd be forgiven for not remaining calm. Yet that's what many Japanese quake victims appear to be doing. People are forming lines outside supermarkets. Life is "particularly orderly,"according to PBS. "Japanese discipline rules despite disaster," says a columnist for The Philippine Star.

Anyone who has seen Big Bird in Japan knows the shorthand for Japanese culture: They're so honest and disciplined! They're a collective society! They value the group over the individual! Of course they're not going to steal anything after the most devastating natural disaster of their lifetimes—unlike those undisciplined thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-earthquake Haiti. Even if they're desperate for food, the Japanese will still wait in line for groceries.

There's a circularity to these cultural explanations, says Mark D. West, a professor at University of Michigan Law School: "Why don't Japanese loot? Because it's not in their culture. How is that culture defined? An absence of looting." A better explanation may be structural factors: a robust system of laws that reinforce honesty, a strong police presence, and, ironically, active crime organizations.

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Honesty, with incentives. Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study on Japan's famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it. For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder's fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don't pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child's first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the "broken windows" policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst.

Police presence. Japan has an active and visible police force of nearly 300,000 officers across the country. Cops walk their beats and chat up local residents and shopkeepers. Police are posted at ubiquitous kobans, police boxes manned by one or two officers, and in cities there's almost always a koban within walking distance of another koban. A survey in 1992 found that 95 percent of residents knew where the nearest koban was, and 14 percent knew the name of an officer who worked there. Cops are paid well—the force attracts many college graduates—and can live in cheap government housing. They also care a lot about public relations: The Tokyo Metropolitan Police even has a mascot, Pipo-kun, whose name means "people + police." They're good at their jobs, too: The clearance rate for murder in 2010 was an unbelievable 98.2 percent, according to West—so unbelievable that some attribute it to underreporting. *

Organized crime. Police aren't the only ones on patrol since the earthquake hit. Members of the Yakuza, Japan's organized crime syndicate, have also been enforcing order. All three major crime groups—the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and the Inagawa-kai—have "compiled squads to patrol the streets of their turf and keep an eye out to make sure looting and robbery doesn't occur," writes Jake Adelstein, author of  Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, in an e-mail message. "The Sumiyoshi-kai claims to have shipped over 40 tons of [humanitarian aid] supplies nationwide and I believe that's a conservative estimate." One group has even opened its Tokyo offices to displaced Japanese and foreigners who were stranded after the first tremors disabled public transportation. "As one Sumiyoshi-kai boss put it to me over the phone," says Adelstein, " 'In times of crisis, there are not Yakuza and civilians or foreigners. There are only human beings and we should help each other.' " Even during times of peace, the Yakuza enforce order, says Adelstein. They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion.

That's not to say that a culture of reciprocity and community doesn't play a role in the relatively calm response to the quake. It's just that these characteristics are reinforced by systems and institutions. Adelstein quotes an old Japanese saying that explains the reciprocal mindset: "Your kindness will be rewarded in the end. Charity is a good investment." But there's a flipside, too: Unkindness will be punished.

Correction, March 17, 2011: This article originally misattributed data on the clearance rate for murder to Jake Adelstein. In fact, that statistic was provided by Mark D. West. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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