If the multiple disasters that have befallen Japan recently had happened here, I’d venture to say that none of us would be here. That’s because those the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation didn’t kill would probably have killed each other by now over the last jug of bottled water.
So how is it that the Japanese appear to cope so well with disasters? Why has there been none of the looting and violence we have come to expect in the wake of such disasters such as happened following Katrina and the earthquakes in Haiti and even New Zealand?
One factor has to be the Japanese philosophy of what is ethical and good. It’s called communitarianism, a philosophy that holds that the ultimate goal is what is good for society as a whole, not individual happiness. That’s a philosophy that’s about as foreign to us Westerners as sushi and kimonos.
Here everything is me, me, me not us, us, us. We look after No. 1 (ourselves) first and then, after we’ve got ours, if there’s anything and anybody left maybe we’ll make a token attempt to pitch in and help others. We have no qualms about looting in the wake of a disaster because we’ve got to be taken care of first.
But the Japanese are more like bees, always taking care of the hive first before personal needs. I know that sounds cold and mechanistic but the Japanese people I’ve met are anything but. They have friends and family and fun. After all, they gave us karaoke and Gamera, the giant, fire-breathing flying turtle. OK, bad examples.
But when it comes to taking something that doesn’t belong to them, i.e. looting, the Japanese would rather commit harikiri. It’s been said that you can never lose anything in Japan because it will always be returned to you by the finder. It’s an ethic that’s engrained in Japanese society from a young age. If you find something, even if it’s a penny on the street, and can’t locate the owner you take it directly to the nearest police station.
That honesty is reinforced with a 5 to 10 percent finder’s fee if the owner claims their lost property or possession of the property if it is not claimed within a certain time period.
The notion that stealing is wrong, even in a disaster, is so prevalent in Japanese society that even criminals don’t steal. According to a recent article in Slate, even the Yakuza, Japan’s version of the mafia which makes its living selling drugs and prostitutes and protection, will kick out any member of the crime family caught stealing.
We can learn a lot from the Japanese and hopefully will in the coming years as Toyota begins production here in north Mississippi and we begin to rub elbows with a culture much older and, in many ways, much wiser than our own.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.