Why Aren’t the Japanese Looting?


In tones of awe, many news outlets are starting to raise this question.

Also: why are supermarkets cutting prices, and vending machine owners handing out free soft drinks? Why haven’t the Japanese devolved into a brute “every person for himself” mentality? Where did this breathtaking display of social unity come from?

But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is not the first time the Japanese have reacted this way. The victims of Hiroshima apologized to each other for surviving. “Their civility has been well documented but still stays the heart,” wrote the essayist Lydia Millet some years ago. ‘I am sorry,’ said one of them, bowing to a grief-stricken mother, with the skin of his arms peeling off in strips. ‘I regret that I am still alive while your baby is not.’ ‘I am sorry,’ another said earnestly, with lips swollen to the size of oranges, as he spoke to a child weeping beside her dead mother. ‘I am so sorry that I was not taken instead.’

In everyday life, Westerners often find people from East Asian countries like Japan to be quiet, deferential, even self-effacing. The Japanese practice of bowing embodies this style. One fMRI study even found that photographs of men in dominance poses (arms crossed, muscles bulging, legs planted squarely on the ground) activated pleasure centers in the brains of American subjects, while pictures of more modest men (shoulders bent, hands interlocked protectively over groin, legs squeezed together) did the same for Japanese viewers.

But, as the cross-cultural psychologist Michael Harris Bond has observed, what Westerners call “self-effacement” can also be labeled “relationship honoring.” Many Japanese  individuals see themselves as part of a greater whole, and place tremendous value on harmony within their group. They submit their own desires to the group’s interests. They have been taught since birth to do this.

This has its downsides, of course. And we need to be careful of sweeping generalizations about entire cultures.

But it helps explain why the Japanese aren’t looting. And why they apologized to each other for surviving Hiroshima. And why we in the West could use a little less self-aggrandizement, and a little more self-effacement.



  1. 'Aunt Amelia' on 15.03.2011 at 12:21 (Reply)

    What a wise observation.

    Why hadn’t I asked that very question?

    Thank you… That you did.

  2. Rick Baumhauer on 15.03.2011 at 13:01 (Reply)

    While this is a very laudable feature of Japanese culture, it should also be noted that part of the reason for it is the extreme homogeneity of the Japan’s population. 98%+ of the population is ethnically Japanese - most of the rest are Korean, generally in the service industry.

    It is unfortunate that one constant in human cultures is the seemingly-constant quest for the ‘other’ that can be blamed for societal problems. Whether it’s skin color, facial features, or simply nationality of origin, there is a deep human propensity for distrust toward those that are ‘not like our tribe’. The closer you get to monoculture, as in Japan, the less this issue crops up, and the more society sees itself as a cohesive whole that must pull together for the common good. You’re less likely to loot if you see the shop owner as your neighbor and friend rather than as a member of an ‘other’ group who has things you want (and I do realize that looting isn’t always that, well, ‘orderly’).

    Immigrant nations, like the US, have the hardest time with this - there are so many ‘others’, it’s sometimes hard for our various political groups to decide which ones to blame for which problems. The flip-side is that immigrant cultures tend to be more innovative due to constant influx of new people and ideas.

    It would be interesting to see which cultures best walk the line between the two extremes - being welcoming to immigrants while still maintaining enough cultural cohesion to keep the nation functioning as a unit. In the words of Tina Fey,”I want to go to there.”

  3. Catherine on 16.03.2011 at 01:05 (Reply)

    Despite the media trying to beat up the presence of looters in Christchurch after our two recent earthquakes, there has been very little looting here either. There have also been quite a few examples of business owners giving out free food, an antiques expert doing free insurance valuations for damaged treasures, and so on. My daughter went shopping for an electric jug to replace one broken in the quake. Most shops were shut. We went into one that looked promising - “No, we don’t stock them, but we have one out the back we don’t use, you can have it for free”.
    And then there is the student volunteer army of 10 to 20 thousand young people who worked tirelessly for days digging silt out of peoples yards.
    I think in a crisis we are more likely to see our neighbours as our neighbours, all in this together, rather than as “them” opposed to our “us”. And that it is not limited to Asian culture.
    (There’s no bowing here, though).

  4. Larry Jones on 17.03.2011 at 00:14 (Reply)

    The human response presented by the Japanese during a crisis is a result of unselfishness and concern for their own countryman. One only has to remember the cruel and distrusting acts performed by our United States Government, to the Japanese residents of this country arresting and placing them into determent camps inside the borders of the U.S.A. at the declaration of war between the two countries. Thats the extent of trust our country had for the Japanese people or for that matter any people…Here we are living in a greed stricken and selfish country. Those people need our help$$$$$$

  5. kpriss on 19.03.2011 at 08:50 (Reply)

    I think it would be highly biased to assume that a monoculture is friendlier and less belligerent just because they don’t have immigrants and various skin colors. Every minority is a majority somewhere and viceversa. It’s a question of existential philosophy, education and perspective. Not color. Just my opinion. And a deep respect towards that entire “bowing” attitude. Admirable!

  6. Two more things | How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird on 19.03.2011 at 11:09

    […] only reference I could find to this story was the way Rush Limbaugh poked fun at it. Ugh.) And they haven’t been looting, as mentioned in this great post about Japanese culture. Many Japanese  individuals see themselves […]

  7. mother waddles on 22.03.2011 at 14:16 (Reply)

    Yeah, I guess Japanese people are trust worthy people. I have not thought about that. Lastly, it might not matter, most stores are flattened and completely destroyed anyways. So people might be taking whatever survived the disaster.

  8. Claudine baumhauer | Hiphuff on 30.03.2012 at 04:10

    […] Why Aren’t the Japanese Looting? - By Susan CainMar 15, 2011 … Rick Baumhauer on 15.03.2011 at 13:01 (Reply) …. Lisa on Three Ways to Celebrate the Quiet Revolution · Claudine Gueh on Rise of the … […]

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