Why Was There No Looting in Japan in Earthquake Aftermath?

Recently someone sent me an e-mail that mentioned a magazine article discussing the orderly conduct of Japanese citizens and the absence of looting and other forms of social mayhem after large portions of that country north of Tokyo were devastated by the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear nightmare.

Social scientists in the U.S., the article said, were baffled by the total non-existence of looting and savage behavior in Japan considering the magnitude of this catastrophe and the fact that you have 130 million Japanese crammed together in an area the size of California.

Think back to the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans. All social order essentially broke down and looting, robbery, and killing became the norm. For weeks it was every man and woman for themselves and anything went. Naturally, the first rule of survival was to break into an appliance store and loot a big screen HD TV or some other appliance. How many scenes like that did you see from Japan?

I can tell you. None.

I lived and worked as a correspondent almost 10 years in Japan and I can tell you it is different from all other countries I reported from.

First, it remains a largely homogeneous society with minimal immigration. Thus Japanese society behaves like some vast bee hive where people live and work collaboratively while still competing with one another. They are governed by a highly developed system of behavior that dates back some 2,000 years.

Without going into great detail the way Japanese people behave is governed by three rather complex concepts:

1. Giri (義理), which denotes an “obligation, duty, justice” and an obligation to be ”faithful” and “conscientious”.

2. Tatemae (建前), which literally means “façade,” is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne.

3. Honne (本音) refers to a person’s true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends.

Taken together, these are powerful forces on the individual to behave in an honorable way. The idea that there would be mass looting in Japan is simply anathema to Japanese culture. If you chose to behave outside of these norms then you are bringing shame on your name and your family. That is an unforgiveable sin in Japan.

Does that mean there is no violence in Japan or that murder, rape and other forms of assault never happen?


Crime does occur in Japan, but in much less than in the United States and most other Western nations. The 1,097 murders in Japan last year were, according to statistics from the National Police Agency (NPA), down 200 from the previous year, a third of the number in 1954. This is out of a population of some 130 million, in the middle of the worst recession since the war.

This represents less than a tenth of the murder rate in the U.S., and a hundredth of that of the most violent countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America. Chicago, with a population of some 3 million, recorded 458 homicides–almost half of the murders in the entire nation of Japan with its 130 million people.

Some social scientists have concluded that in addition to the peculiarly Japanese concepts of Giri, Tatamae and Honne, another reason for the low murder rate is the nation’s aging society. The number of people in their 20s — which is the peak age for murder — is falling, and with it, the murder rate is falling steadily, they say.

Of course, the U.S. and most of Western Europe are also aging societies with birth rates dropping sharply. Yet violent crime is still high compared with Japan.

In the late 1980s I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune that discussed Japan’s low crime rate. In it I discussed Japan’s unique social structure and the importance it places on the individual to conform to the objectives and motivations of the larger group. In Japan much more importance is placed on conformity and social responsibility.

In the U.S. and most other Western Nations tremendous emphasis is placed on the individual. We encourage independent thought and place great value on individuality and uniqueness. In the U.S. it is often “all about me” to the detriment of others. We teach our children that they are more important than the whole. This “me, me, me” attitude continues into adolescence and adulthood and ironically has manifested itself into an inability of people to accept personal responsibility for their actions.

How often do we hear people say: “But it’s not my fault,” when, in fact, it is. Or maybe they are simply saying “The Devil made me do it.” Avoiding personal responsibility has become a new American pastime. Look at the millions of people who took out low interest, sub-prime loans for houses they knew they couldn’t afford. Then, when the housing market crashed and burned, they were left upside down in houses with mortgages much higher than the value of their property.

“It wasn’t my fault,” many said. “The banks made me do it.”


In my story from Japan I used the example of a real event that occurred in Tokyo. A thief broke into the house of an aging pensioner. Holding a small knife he demanded the old man’s money. The pensioner went to a small chest and pulled out the yen equivalent of about $100.

“That’s all I have,” the old man said.

The thief took the money, counted it and asked the pensioner how long it would be before he got his next check.

“About a week,” he said.

“Here,” the thief said. “This should be enough until then.” He then returned half of the old man’s money, bowed politely, and left.

In Japan, apparently, even thieves possess a sense of Giri, Tatamae and Honne.

Below are some recent crime statistics for selected countries and Japan. They are quite revealing.

Murders per 100,000:
1. Russian Federation 18.07
2. United States 6.32
3. Malaysia 2.73
4. Taiwan 1.17
5. Spain 1.08
6. Japan 0.58

Rape per 100,000:
1. United States 34.20
2. England and Wales 14.69
3. France 13.38
4. Taiwan 8.82
5. South Korea 4.38
6. Spain 3.23
7. Japan 1.48

Serious Assault per 100,000:
1. Australia 713.68
2. England & Wales 405.20
3. United States 357.94
4. Taiwan 37.30
5. Spain 23.94
6. Japan 15.40

Robbery/Violent Theft per 100,000:
1. Spain 169.85
2. United States 169.02
3. France 144.10
4. Taiwan 14.35
5. South Korea 11.74
6. Japan 2.71

In the U.S. we can’t even win an NBA or NFL championship without violence breaking out. In Japan a devastating 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and threat of nuclear disaster has little impact on the fabric of Japanese society.

Go figure.