There is a growing conversation among westerners asking the question of why there is no or little looting in Japan after the massive 9.0 earthquakes and tsunami. Contrast their calmness and order with the anarchist aftermath in New Orleans after Katrina, Haiti Chile who suffered their own tragic earthquakes, and one must ask the question of why. What is the difference, how can we develop some of those same attributes?
Various people have posited various positions such as racial homogeneity, their culture of respect and honor, and their culture of shame. I have read numerous accounts of people who lived there that felt completely safe because crime is at much lower levels than in the United States.
But what makes a culture? A culture is built around the stories we tell ourselves, our myths, our beliefs. They all work together to define how we interpret the world and the events that occur to us. These stories help us deal with the pain of loss, whether of life and limb or even financial.
One of the relevant cultural stories that the Japanese tell themselves is that their nation is uniformly middle class. For the last several decades they have taken great pride that there is relative income equality among their people.
There is a measure in Economics called the Gini coefficient which measures income disparity within a population. Japan has consistently been shown to have less income disparity than the US and especially Haiti or Chile.
The greater income disparity the more likely a country will suffer from class envy. Many reports of the devastation in New Orleans were tinged with descriptions and stories of class warfare. After Katrina there were accusations that the government did not respond fast enough because the people who needed help were poor. Whether the stories of government disregard are objectively true or not, these contextual stories affect how all of us interpret the events surrounding Katrina.
If I were young and poor, believing the stories that the rich were ignoring my plight, I might be able to justify stealing from those with more in order to make myself some money, in other words, I might become a looter. If I lived in Haiti and had long been angry about corruption in the government and the conspiracy of the rich to keep me poor, I would have no problem feeling justified in stealing from them. However, if I believed that all those suffering were equal with me, I would be less likely to use class or wealth as a justification for stealing from another, because I know that person is in the same boat as me.
The Gini coefficient is usually a pretty good indicator wherever we see political unrest or violence in the world. The poor are more likely to rebel or steal than those who have sufficient for their needs. However, it is not only poverty which allows an individual to justify criminal behavior, but an emotional despair that there is no other way to escape. This is where the culture of shame may help in Japanese society, for even though one may be tempted in dire circumstances, honor and the fear of shame may help to suppress those base urges of looting.
The Japanese government released poverty statistics for their country for the first time in October 2009. They found they had over 15% of poverty, which is not that much lower than the 17% in America. Perhaps as these figures become more widely reported and understood by the Japanese populace the stories they tell themselves will change, and we may see more class envy, changing their culture and leading it down a road where they may start to see more violence and crime.