From The Grio — Why aren’t the Japanese looting? It is a question that some people are asking, in response to Japan’s response to the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. It is a loaded question from the start, because comparisons are now being made between the absence of looting following the latest disaster in Japan, and the looting which took place after last year’s deadly Haiti earthquake, and after Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans in 2005.
This leads to another question: Is looting economic or cultural? As an African-American who lived with a Japanese family as a high school exchange student, majored in Japanese studies in college, and later rode the Tokyo subway every day to work in a Japanese corporation, I have some thoughts. I say it is economic, but it isn’t quite that simple, because other circumstances are at play. Here’s why:
A number of reporters and commentators have pointed to Japanese culture as the reason why the Japanese haven’t looted. There is no question that there is a sense of discipline and order, politeness, and group solidarity in the island nation. Maybe you need some of that when you’re a country with a land mass the size of California, but with a population of over 126 million.
Honesty and respect for property are encouraged in Japan, perhaps to a degree to which Americans are unfamiliar. For example, subway riders are known to take items someone left on the train to the lost and found. And there is are financial and legal incentives to have Japanese citizens do the right thing, not to mention a strong system of community policing, and an emphasis on sham — what the community will think if you’ve gone astray, and the threat of being ostracized. This is not to be confused with societies such as U.S. that stress guilt, which is more an internal and personal issue than an external one.
Some insensitive and bigoted observers attribute the Japanese response to their relatively homogenous and therefore, in their view, superior culture. They would suggest there is no looting because “there are few black, Hispanic or Arab people in Japan,” or as one person argued, “Japanese do not loot, black Americans in Louisiana do. If that is a fact, how is it racist?” Larry Elder, a black conservative, dismissed the role that poverty plays in looting during major catastrophes, arguing that “Culture and values explain why some countries and some communities experience crime, while others do not. This explains why many students from Asian countries outperform equally ‘disadvantaged’ black and brown students from the same ‘under-performing’ inner-city government schools.” And what Elder articulated is what other people really want to say, though they are dancing around it, which is that black people are prone to criminality. In other words, whether in New Orleans or Port-au-Prince, they just don’t know how to act.
The cultural explanation for looting just doesn’t cut it, and at its worst it shows signs of racism. We should not downplay the role of poverty and, deprivation — along with desperation and anxiety — when people are faced with a life and death scenario. None of us really knows how we would behave when our backs are against the wall and we have to feed our families. Japan is the third richest nation, but Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world.
Meanwhile, among cities over 100,000 people, New Orleans is the fifth poorest city with the eighth largest black population in the U.S., in a state with the nation’s highest poverty rate. Louisiana has a poverty rate of 19.6 percent, and 18 percent lack health insurance, while Japan has universal health insurance. New Orleans is 27.9 impoverished and 25 percent uninsured, and the Lower Ninth Ward, where the levees broke, suffers from a poverty rate of 36.4 percent.