Foreign observers are noting with curiosity and wonder that the Japanese people in disaster-plagued areas are not looting for desperately-needed supplies like bottled water. This behavior contrasts sharply with what has so often happened in the wake of catastrophes elsewhere, such as Haiti, New Orleans, Chile, and the UK, to name only a few. Most people chalk up the extraordinary good behavior to Japanese culture, noting the legendary politeness of Japanese people in everyday life.
Culture does play a role, but it is not an adequate explanation. After all, in the right circumstances, Japanese mass behavior can rank with the worst humanity has to offer, as in the Rape of Nanking. There are clearly other factors at work determining mass outbreaks of good and bad behavior among the Japanese, and for that matter, anyone else.
There are, in fact, lessons to be learned from the Japanese good behavior by their friends overseas, lessons which do not require wholesale adoption of Japanese culture, from eating sushi to sleeping on tatami mats. It is more a matter of social structure than culture keeping the Japanese victims of catastrophe acting in the civilized and enlightened manner they have displayed over the past few days.
The Cruise Ship and the Ferryboat
Many years ago, a worldly and insightful Japanese business executive offered me an analogy that gets to heart of the forces keeping the Japanese in line, that has nothing to do with culture. "Japanese people," he told me, "are like passengers on a cruise ship. They know that they are stuck with the same people around them for the foreseeable future, so they are polite, and behave in ways that don't make enemies, and keep everything on a friendly and gracious basis."
"Americans," he said, "are like ferryboat passengers. They know that at the end of a short voyage they will get off and may never see each other again. So if they push ahead of others to get off first, there are no real consequences to face. It is every man for himself."
Despite the existence of massive cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, people in their neighborhoods are well known to those around them. There is little urban anonymity. When I first lived in Japan on a work visa and had my own apartment in a residential neighborhood of Tokyo, in 1971, I was paid a friendly visit by a local policeman. It was a completely routine matter: police are required to keep track of every resident of their beats, and they want to know the basics, such as your work, your age, and your living circumstances. In my circumstances, immigration papers were also of concern, but for Japanese, it would be the koseki, a mandatory official family record kept on a household basis, reporting births, acknowledgements of paternity, adoptions, disruptions of adoptions, deaths, marriages and divorces. Every Japanese is not just an individual, he or she is officially is a member of a household (ie), and the state keeps track.
Following the gathering of my information, the policeman no doubt returned to his local substation (koban), which are found every few blocks in urban areas, to record the information for his colleagues. To an American it seemed quite extraordinary, a violation of privacy. But in Japan a lack of anonymity is the norm.
Soon after the beat cop's visit to me, local merchants began nodding to me as I walked to and from the train station, as if they knew me and acknowledged me. I was fairly certain the word had gone out via omawari san (literally, the honorable gentleman who walks around, a polite colloquial euphemism for the police) that I was a Japanese-speaking American in Japan on legitimate, respectable grounds. For a year or so, I was a member of the community.
The Tohoku Region (literally: the Northeast, in practice, the island of Honshu north of Tokyo) where the earthquake and tsunami hit hardest, is far less urbanized than the rest of the main island of Honshu, and has for many decades seen an exodus of young people to the big cities elsewhere in Japan. Going back to the feudal era (i.e., pre-1868), Tohoku was poorer than the other regions of Japan because its northern climate can support only one crop of rice per year, rather than the two (and in the warmest places, even three) which were cultivated in the rest of Japan. Since Japan's industrialization, Tohoku's relative poverty has diminished, but it is still less economically developed and more rural than its neighbors to the south and west in Japan, and has relatively little in-migration from other parts of Japan.
The main city of Tohoku, the green and (once) lovely city of Sendai, had a million people and a state of the art subway, but is a city of neighborhoods with little anonymity. In the smaller cities and villages, it is almost impossible to misbehave and not be recognized by one's neighbors.
Anthropologists speak of Japan as a "shame culture," as opposed to a "guilt culture," meaning that people are constrained to behave themselves properly by an aversion to being judged negatively by those around them, rather than internalizing a moral imperative. Broadly speaking, that is true today. But it is also true that most contemporary Japanese have internalized a deep respect for private property, that is manifested in a ritual of modern life for children, one which we might do well to emulate. When a child finds a small item belonging to another person, even a one yen coin, a parent takes the child to the local koban and reports lost property. As chronicled by T.R. Reid in his wonderful book about living in Tokyo, Confucius Lives Next Door, the police do not resent this as a waste of time but rather see it as part of moral education, solemnly filling out the appropriate forms, thanking the child and telling him or her if the owner does not appear to claim the item, it will revert to the finder after a certain period of time.
Perhaps more successfully than any other people of the world, the Japanese have evolved a social system capable of ensuring order and good behavior. The vast reservoir of social strength brought Japan through the devastation of World War II, compared to which even the massive problems currently afflicting it, are relatively small. Japan has sustained a major blow, but its robust social order will endure, and ultimately thrive.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker. In his academic career, he taught East Asian Studies at Harvard and he was a visiting professor at Japan's National Museum of Ethnology, among other scholarly activities.