CNN's Jack Cafferty asks the kind of question that only media people could ask in the wake of a human tragedy. Or during a human tragedy in progress. Why is there no looting in Japan? Despite the poor timing this question is worth asking, especially given that Americans and their media will almost certainly arrive at a horribly incorrect answer.

The scale of the disaster in Japan is unprecedented – they have basically been through most of the events of the apocalypse and, factoring in the radiation, the origin story for both Mothra and Godzilla. Yet there is no looting. Haiti had looting. So did New Orleans. And Chile. And Great Britain during the floods. And New York during the blackouts. Hell, Montreal got looted after Les Habitants made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year. Cairo was "engulfed in looting" during Mubarak's decline. Baghdad was badly looted (including archaeological artifacts from the national museum) when the Hussein regime collapsed. Tokyo? Osaka? Sendai? Either there is no looting or the media for some reason chooses not to report it.

The answer to this puzzle, as Cafferty's viewers illustrate, revolve around vague differences in "culture" and western stereotypes about Asians (zen-like calm, efficiency, ability to endure hardships, excellent math skills, and so on). Some of the answers are reflective of people clinging to 1910s-era theories of racial hierarchies, as I'm sure a disturbingly large number of Americans do. Maybe loosely defined cultural differences are the answer.

Maybe not. Looting (or doing anything, for that matter) is pretty difficult after a tsunami. Note that there was little looting in Indonesia in 2004. But the most persuasive answers are…political. The Japanese government is by all accounts remarkably well organized and prepared to respond to this kind of disaster. All of the failures in New Orleans, by comparison, have their origins in the crooked, incompetent crony politics of the local government and the non-existent Federal response. Japan is among the many non-American nations that recognize that government is not inherently useless and evil. If government takes its responsibilities seriously (which requires the preliminary step of recognizing that responding to an unthinkably large natural disaster is a government responsibility) it is possible to see that the animal-level needs of its people are met. Japan does have the advantage of being a small, dense country, but nonetheless its public sector has managed to shelter, feed, and rescue itself admirably. Why? Because its government is not devoted to the idea that government should be abolished.

Beyond that, Japan hasn't build its entire society on the principle of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food. When America has a natural disaster, the private sector immediately focuses on profiteering and jacking up prices. In Japan the prices are lowered and in some cases basic necessities are even given away gratis. Japanese are more willing to look out for and help one another because unlike the U.S., their social dynamics focus on group harmony (critics say "conformity") rather than constant reminders that You are responsible for yourself and no one else. If your neighbor needs help, the American response is to lecture him about failing to better prepare himself for the crisis.

That, and Japan hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass that interacts with government primarily at the end of a police baton.

This discussion unavoidably paints with a broad brush. Lots of Americans helped one another during Katrina and lots of Japanese are probably assholes who don't care about others. Japanese culture also has flaws that should not be painted over, particularly the collective willingness to shame individuals into conformity and occasionally work one another to death. But there is no denying the differences at the heart of Cafferty's ill-timed observation. There is no looting in Japan for a variety of reasons – cultural, social, practical, and especially political. If half of Sendai's police abandoned the city as the sad excuses for cops did in New Orleans, maybe there would be looting. If there was no plan in place to rapidly rescue, feed, and house people in flooded areas, maybe there would be looting. If people were encouraged to see one another as The Enemy and to see government emergency planning services as a conspiracy to round people up in detention camps, maybe there would be looting. If Japan socially and politically abandoned the idea that there can ever be a collective solution to anything, maybe there would be looting.

Oh, and Japan does not have many black people. The media do not count anything as "looting" unless black people do it.


  • That about covers it. Particularly the parts where the Govt is not trying to dismantle itself from the inside and the every man for himself.
    Not sure what else a Govt is for if it's not there to step in when there's a large natural disaster like this.

    I'm sure if there was looting and the Japanese were looking to blame someone it would be the Ainu, but of course they don't exist.

  • I think your post is in the right of it.

    As a public school teacher in Japan I would cite a few things:

    1:Preparedness. Everyone in Japan, from their birth have received lecture after lecture, especially at school, about what to do in a disaster. Everyone has been told time and again "Remember." The Kobe earthquake is marked every year.

    2: Faith in Government: As mentioned in your post. People in Japan aren't blindly obedient to the government. They don't like most of the people in it. But there is a basic understanding that government's job is to preform in these situations. This is what the government does; the steady boring work of making things function.

    3: Localism: Sometimes it is hard for Westerners to grasp how rural much of Japan is. A good part of the country feels like a fantasy farmland in 1930. There is a good reason that you don't run down and loot the supermarket; it is Mr. Tanaka's supermarket. The gas stand is Onodera-san's gas stand. These are the people you have known and are going to continue to know. Even in a big city like Sendai, neighborhoods are still very local, I would assume. I don't live there.

    Even with all this being said, I imagine if people were stuck with no food or water that they would take it. If it was cold and they had no clothes I imagine they would take them. That isn't a lack of morals, that is survival. I have never faulted people in New Orleans for doing the same.

  • Danthelawyer says:

    I've always wondered why anyone is surprised that the Republican party, an organized criminal enterprise dedicated to dismantling government, does a bad job of governing. Duh, they *want* to.

    Japan seems to be blissfully free of such an organization.

    That said, and not to diminish the suffering Japan has endured or the resilience the Japanese have shown in the last week, it's worth taking a historical view.

    The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which struck Tokyo, was followed by widespread massacres of Korean-Japanese and many who were only believed to be of Korean ancestry. The army also seized the opportunity to round up and execute socialists, anarchists, and others accustomed to exercising free speech. Some suggest that this set Japan on the path to the military/fascist government that brought them to war.

  • Their idea of disaster preparedness is not hoarding enough bullets to shoot their neighbors who run out of food."

    Just Perfect.

  • I have nothing to add. This all makes perfect sense. For yucks, you might like the wankery going on at the links from Andrew Sullivan. (See below, its National Review, where irony goes to die, unnoticed) The peek behind the curtain at barely contained paranoia and delusions of adequacy are interesting in their own way.

    Gin and Tacos is the best rant in my daily read. Thanks

  • @Uzza – This conversation just came up with my super liberal in-laws last weekend. They were convinced that they may just need to own a firearm for when we have out Japan moment.

    I hope they're not right.

  • Admiral_Komack says:

    "CNN's Jack Cafferty asks the kind of question that only media people could ask in the wake of a human tragedy. Or during a human tragedy in progress. Why is there no looting in Japan?"

    -Just another reason CNN sucks.
    Just merge with Fox…please.

  • "The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which struck Tokyo, was followed by widespread massacres of Korean-Japanese and many who were only believed to be of Korean ancestry. The army also seized the opportunity to round up and execute socialists, anarchists, and others accustomed to exercising free speech. Some suggest that this set Japan on the path to the military/fascist government that brought them to war."

    They were also terrible in their treatment of POWs and the women of Korean and Filipina descent in the years leading up to and during the war. Google "japan comfort women" some time if you're in the mood to get really angry or depressed. But I would hope that their behavior now, contrasted with what it was then, can be taken as proof that human beings are capable of learning from their mistakes and doing better.

  • Yes, the Japanese have no problem with collective action and being good to one another. Deru kui wa utareru, after all.

    However, as some commenters have noted, when you're dealing with any gaijin, that same spirit of togetherness doesn't apply.

  • Ed, thanks for this one. I saw Jack's question on CNN and the comments were painfully bad. Glad you saw it as well.

  • Speaking of working to death, I read yesterday that Chief Cabinet Minister Edano went home yesterday. For the first time in five days. Those jumpsuits must reek.

  • A few good points, but consider a counterexample. I currently live in Nashville, a tea-party hotspot with a populations that places a high priority on individualism and which fears the government quite a bit. Last May there was record rainfall and resulting floods which put 3/4 of the city underwater. Yet most people didn't hear about it on the news because the community dealt with it so well. People did not, as you sarcastically suggest they would, reach for their (many) guns and shoot people off their submerged property. Instead they came together in an organic community formed without the assistance of government. I do think Americans in general and the Republican party place too much of an emphasis on individuality, but its wrong of you to suggest that Americans are so heartless and/or stupid to come together when other people need help.

  • Simon:
    Sorry, but I thought that Nashville was underreported because of that oil spill thingy… As a result of "our" preoccupation with the oil spill, Nashvillians probably were forced to work together instead of waiting for Govt. assistance. (Though I would like to see proof of this lack of Government assistance. Seems to me that the Tea Party would have latched onto that one & never let the rest of us forget it.)

    "our" = Non-Nashvillians
    us = non-Tea Party "members"

  • Monkey Business says:

    When you have a government, and half of the ruling parties are actively campaigning for dismantling the government, there is a decent chance that the government will not be nearly as effective as it might otherwise be.

  • Why is there no looting in Japan? Despite the poor timing this question is worth asking.

    No, actually, it's not. The question reinforces the mistaken idea that there IS looting here after such disasters.

    Nearly one year ago Nashville flooded. We had no looting. There was no looting after Katrina, or very little. Ditto Haiti. What we had was a media bound and determined to report on looting so they went looking for it, and reported on it even though that's not what was happening.

    I'd like us to ditch the whole "looting" narrative completely. In the wake of a disaster, when someone needs food and water and they pick through the wreckage to find it, that is not looting. That's surviving.

    Busting a store window and carting of a big-screen TV is looting. I don't recall *any* reports of people doing that after Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, etc. We did have pictures in the press of black people "looting" when in fact it was store owners overseeing an orderly distribution of food to help out their neighbor.

    The entire "looting" narrative pisses me off.

  • "A" I do think the oil spill played a role, I should have mentioned it. I was simply trying to say that Americans do have the capability to come together and exhibit that capability despite their ugly emphasis on individuality. Thanks.

  • I recall two newspaper photos right after Katrina.

    One showed a picture of black "looters" carrying food.

    The other showed white people "carrying food that they had found".

  • Looting is the free market's way of implementing free disaster clean-up. It is highly efficient in this regard. That Japanese culture is not exhibiting this trait after the earthquake simply illustrates that they are a backward culture and don't believe in the right God. Onward Christian soldiers!

  • On a related note, several years ago I did a few blog posts on "freegans" and likened it to the Biblically-sancitoned practice of "gleaning." The Bible actually tells landowners to leave grain in the fields for the poor to take. I see no difference between this and freegans. None.

    The right-wing free-market backlash was stunning. A prominent local conservative blogger, who went on to become the spokesman for the TN Republican Party, railed against "freegans" as anti-American and "freeloaders on hardworking Americans," etc. Similarly, companies like Wal-Mart routinely padlock their dumpsters to prevent "theft." Um … is it theft if it's in the trash?

    Anyway, I always found that amusing. Capitalism depends upon such practices as waste and "planned obsolescence" and so little wonder right wingers are so offended when anyone dares exploit the flaws in the system.

  • Sorry, but I thought that Nashville was underreported because of that oil spill thingy…

    Maybe but the oil spill happened nearly two weeks before the flood. It was another story we were following at that point.

    Another Tennessee disaster that went underreported was the failture of the Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash detention pond, Christmas 2008. 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash slurry … worse than Exxon Valdez and the BP oil spill. But it was just a bunch of hillbillies affected and a couple of rivers polluted. Nothing to see here, move along ….

  • @ Southern Beale

    Where are people like you in this town?! I've been here for 10 months and am having trouble finding intelligent discourse.

  • @simon:

    LOL. We are here! Lots of us, actually….

    I've never gone to any of the "Drinking Liberally" events here but I know there's an active group, you might start there ….

    Are you going to see the "Yes Men" tonight? They are speaking tonight at Vanderbilt, 7 pm at Wilson Hall. I thought I'd be able to go but it's looking like I'm going to have to work late tonight. But I'm sure you will find lots of kindred spirits there ….

  • So… basically, because the government didn't come in and give away free bigscreen televisions, that's why New Orleans and New York rioted two minutes after the water hit and the lights went off.

    Ok, got it.

  • Saying there was no looting in New Orleans after Katrina or in Haiti is disingenuous. I agree that taking food because one is starving is survival, but food was not all that was taken. I'm sure the looting aspect was over-reported, but that's no reason to deny it was ever there.

    That said, there are many reasons for the lack of looting in Japan, and the gov't response is definitely a big one. But government cannot be divorced from its culture, therefore a cultural argument, while overly reductive, is not an incorrect conversation to have.

  • bb, I'm not seeing where anyone's displaying any hatred "of all things American." Neocon ideology and the Republican party are American, as far as they go, but they are not the *only* things that are American (and it really puzzles me that you neocons seem to have so much trouble getting that concept through your skulls, but that's a whole blog post by itself and I don't have a blog). And the racist dipshit I ran into while I was doing my monthly voluntarism/civic duty for my community last Saturday is one of those things that makes me glad I ran away from neoconservatism so many years ago; is that what you mean by "hatred of all things American"?

  • These days 90% of being patriotic seems to be comprised of accusing other people of not being patriotic.

  • This is a nitpick, but it was only during the 1977 blackout that there was widespread looting in New York. That didn't happen during the 1965 or 2003 blackouts. However, I think that fact reinforces your main point, which is that where there is a sense of community and of hope, opportunistic criminality does not arise in the wake of a disaster. In 1977, the City's fiscal crisis had stripped services, crime generally was rising, and there was a sense that everything was going to hell (later that year came the famous Yankee Stadium World Series shots of fires nearby in the Bronx, and Howard Cosell's declaration, "The Bronx is Burning!" In 1965 and 2003, however, there was a greater sense of community and of hope, and City services (including police) were in sound shape.

  • I don't know…not having on-the-ground knowledge and not being an expert on Japan, I wouldn't begin to have an answer to this question. It's probably due to cultural factors, as well as geographic factors (as you pointed out, it's hard to loot near a tsunamai; it seems to have destroyed everything in its path, so there might just not be much to loot). That said, I think your reference to political factors, namely the role of the public sector, isn't very well fleshed out. If your argument is that the Japanese state has the capacity to respond rapidly to natural disasters, that's undoubtedly true. It's obviously a wealthy country, which helps. But when you write, "Japan is among the many non-American nations that recognize that government is not inherently useless and evil," you seem to be implying that part of the government's effective response is due to the public sector being more valued in Japan than in the U.S. Maybe?

    The government clearly plays a bigger role in Japan's economy than it does here. Since WWII it has had a developmental state model, in which the state plays a key role in R+D, financing certain industries, subsidizing firms, setting strategic economic targets, etc. But it doesn't have an overly large welfare system. It's certainly less extensive than in Western Europe, and I don't think it's much more extensive than the one we have. In fact, that's why the recession that the country has been mired in for the past decade+ has been so hard on people, precisely because it doesn't have in place an extensive system of unemployment compensation. But I could be wrong, and if so, I'd like to hear more about it from somebody with more expertise on the country. I just think that your argument about the government being so much more valued and taking its job more seriously sounded a bit naive. Especially when you try to contrast it to cronyism and profit-motive that is supposed to be so much worse in America. The state and corporate realms are every bit as entwined in Japan as they are here, perhaps more so.

  • @leon:

    Saying there was no looting in New Orleans after Katrina or in Haiti is disingenuous.

    Well I didn't mean that, I did say "very little" looting but regardless: my point is that this expectation of widespread looting is offensive because it implies that Americans are a bunch of animals who descend into some kind of dystopic anarchy at the first sign of trouble on the horizon. And when there isn't widespread looting, as in Nashville, then we can puff up our chests and say "WE ARE NASHVILLE! WE didn't loot!" the unsaid but implied rest of the sentence being, "unlike those dirty brown people in New Orleans or Haiti …" hanging in the air.

    I think this is a media-generated narrative. Just as every time there is a liberal protest the media expects there to be violence, every time there is a disaster, the media goes looking for looters and crime. Christ, it happened after 9/11, remember how everyone remarked on how orderly the evacuation of lower Manhattan was? Well, why the hell wouldn't it be?

    Americans aren't savages. I think a lot of this is related to the fact that the media overplays crime stories and fills the airwaves with fear. You'd think from watching the news that American cities were crime-ridden war zones where everyone has to be armed to the teeth just to go to the Kroger. That doesn't mean to say there isn't crime in our cities but the media completely overplays the danger.

  • "Why is there no looting in Japan?"

    Well, now, that there's what we country boys call us a "rhetorical question", meaning it's just out there so's you can say something pissy by pretending to answer it. Typical east-coast Liberal elitist stuff. A real manly man would have just said what was on his mind, which would have been something like "See, them [insert your favorite epithet to describe the Yellow Peril]s jest ain't like us Real 'Murikans! Me and Billy-Clem would have stripped the local liquor and gun store in 10 seconds flat! And then spent the rest of the day shootin' those damn looters with their TVs and stuff."
    I think you might be over-analyzing this whole thing a little, Ed.
    Some of us pull together in a crisis, and some of us screw each other over. Part of it is likely to be group homogeneity, part of it is likely to be cultural expectations, but all of it is kind of unimportant in the larger scale, except when used to harp on the "otherness" of those "others".
    Cafferty's what we used to call a "dumbshit". There's a lot of them around, especially on TV. Any time you spend pondering something any of them say is time you could be doing something worthwhile, like clipping your toenails. Argy-bargying about why people are different is just a big old waste of time if it doesn't involve some sort of alcohol, preferably beer. Let's get back to pointing out the stupidities of the folks where you're living and working. We can all get behind that without any of this philosophical heavy lifting.

  • @SouthernBeale,

    You're absolutely correct that we shouldn't feel the need to pat ourselves on the back when we don't loot in a crisis. We do it partly because the media tells us that looting naturally flows from crises, but also because we want to keep our ever-present exceptionalism. It's awesome that Nashvillians endured a flood so well that it hardly registered a blip on the national news media. But anyway, like I said about politics reflecting the culture, the media does, too. Which is why I think it's pretty well agreed that a 9.0 earthquake+13-foot tsunami hitting LA would play out quite differently than it did (and is) in Japan. What is it about our culture that makes looting seem like the obvious response?

    I don't know, but I know it's not a simple answer…

  • @leon:

    I hear what you're saying, let me add: you write What is it about our culture that makes looting seem like the obvious response but it clearly is *not* the obvious response, the obvious respones is to help your neighbors. The MEDIA's first response is to ask "show me the looting!" And I'd argue neither our politics nor our media reflect our culture. Our media reflects its owners … as do our politicians.

    Corporate America prospers from fear, hence the prevalence of fear messaging.

  • Many of y'all are just stupefyin' in your hatred of all things American.

    Nope, not all things American. Just the bad things–like the loud voices of those who would like to see government "drowned in a bathtub."

  • mother earth says:

    I also think socioeconomics plays into whether or not looting occurs. I have no knowledge about Japan, how poor is their lower income class, where are they located. I remember some looting in New Orleans after Katrina, but it didn't seem like a huge event. I remember more looting during racial riots in the 60's, Watts comes to mind. But I attribute that as rage against the man, and back then, it was an upper income white man holding all the power everywhere.

  • The last statement was the thinly veiled compare and contrast: Katrina, Haiti, etc… when the fact of the matter is the priceless and precise analysis Ed laid out.

  • Isn't the real reason that there was no looting the fact that life continued largely as normal at first in the parts of Japan outside of the reach of the tsunami, whereas in the tsunami area there was nothing left to loot from?

  • "If half of Sendai's police abandoned the city as the sad excuses for cops did in New Orleans, maybe there would be looting. If there was no plan in place to rapidly rescue, feed, and house people in flooded areas, maybe there would be looting."

    Nope. I was living in Kyoto when the Kobe earthquake happened. Four days later, a group of us went there with the Red Cross to help out. We were assigned to groups to cover different areas, looking for people who had refused to leave to offer them supplies and information. Some areas were blacked out on the map. I understood why when we walked past one – complete rubble, no one could be trying to live there – those were the areas where the day laborers lived in post-WWII tenements that had collapsed like towers of cards. We went to the areas where some of the buildings were still standing, mixtures of expensive private homes, that stood pretty much intact, and middle-income housing, with varying levels of damage. Tsunamis may not respect class, but earthquakes do.

    There were a number of people holding out in their homes, of various classes. Enough to leave piles of garbage bags that hadn't been collected. We say no police, no officials of any kind, but we did see newspaper delivery scooters and volunteer road-clearers and residents picking through their ex-homes for valuables. In the three hours we were in that neighborhood, we saw around 20-30 people. And, right in the middle of our area, at a crossroad we passed through at least half a dozen times, a pile of papers with a couple of passports on the top. It had rained the day before, so on our third pass, I reached down to see if they were damp. They were, meaning they'd been there for at least 24 hours. When I stood up I caught two of the members of my group (all Japanese except for me) watching to check what I was doing. Not only would none of the Japanese people there dream of taking one of those passports, worth an easy $10,000 on the black market, but they weren't going to let the one foreigner take them either. They kept staring until I explained.

    No police, and no rescue plan. Kobe was even more mismanaged than Katrina, at least in those early days. But it was unthinkable that anyone would loot.

    So yes, it is culture. Not faith in the government, at that point no one there had any (I heard a number of Japanese people commenting that they could trust the Red Cross because it wasn't a government agency). And certainly not fear of getting caught. Nor is it ancient culture, as previous commenters pointed out with the 1923 earthquake. My sense from conversations I had with Japanese people at the time and since, is that it's a postwar thing, a belief that, (in their voices) while our government might lead us astray, as long as we work together and take care of each other, we can overcome any hardship, but if we take from each other and only think of ourselves, we'll all sink.

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