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.