Why don’t the Japanese loot?

From an article by Christopher Beam in Salon, March 16

Our view of Japanese culture is as follows:

The Japanese are honest and disciplined. They are a collective society. They value the group over the individual. Of course they’re not going to steal anything after the most devastating natural disaster of their lifetimes – unlike those undisciplined thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-earthquake Haiti. Even if they are desperate for food, the Japanese will still wait in line for groceries.

Mark D. West, professor at University of Michigan Law School, believes that there is a circularity to these cultural explanations, “Why don’t Japanese loot? Because it’s not in their culture. How is that culture defined? An absence of looting.” A better explanation, he believes, is structural factors: a robust system of laws that reinforce honesty, a strong police presence, and, ironically, active crime organizations.

Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study of Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that creates incentives for people to return property they find rather than keep it.

For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don’t pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously.

At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst.


9 responses to “Why don’t the Japanese loot?

  1. I have always understood (can’t remember the source, probably back in law school days) that one of the factors underlying a kind of general societal honesty in Japan is the public stigmatization of criminals and criminal behaviour.
    We in the West wring our hands and seek to explain and excuse people who commit criminal acts on the basis of root causes. They’re not really bad, they’re just victims of [pick one or more] poverty, child abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc etc.
    Japanese society, on the other hand, characterizes crime as shameworthy, and holds criminals and their families up to public humiliation, apparently with a considerable degree of deterrent effectiveness.
    Interestingly, this approach has been employed here (albeit probably without a conscious plan) in respect of one particular offence category — drinking and driving — and has enjoyed considerable success over a period of 30 or 40 years.
    For crimes against property or of personal violence, we don’t seem to take the same approach. Too bad.

    • Excellent comment. Trying to understand WHY criminals commit crimes does not mean that one is soft on crime, but it often appears that way.

  2. Horace Krever

    The view that law, in the sence of harsh punishment, or the fear of it, deters anti-social behaviour, though commonly held, is probably not universally valid. It is well known that in the era of capital punishment, when the mandatory sentence for felony was hanging, pickpockets practised their trade actively among the crowds pesent at the public executions.

    • Capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder, evidently. Is it not unreasonable to expect it to be a deterrent to pickpocketing?

  3. Michael Gundy

    I love to know if there is a co-relation between crime and a measure of collectivist versus individualistic cultures. I base this on my observation in Africa that an individual’s loyalty is to one’s family and tribe. Outside of protecting that group, anti-social behaviour was O.K.

    • I am sure you are right. To discourage anti-social behaviour we will have to give the widest possible definition to a “tribe”. In utopia, all of humanity will be one tribe.

  4. If I had to choose between the emotional and psychological damage caused by shame-based behaviour and putting up with more crime, the latter would be my choice. Systematic shaming is a form of “crime” in and of itself.

  5. Tony has a good point, that a society that controls its members through shaming probably does so in more areas than just crime. If it were only about crime, then it would be worth doing. And shaming does not work very well for the various organized crime rings in Japan, which appear to be pretty well known.