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INSIDE LOSERS' PARADISE

Japan’s social norms shaped by law

by Jeff Kingston

LAW IN EVERYDAY JAPAN: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes, by Mark D. West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 279 pp., $19.95 (paper).

This is a superb book that explores the interaction of law, society and culture over a range of intriguing topics. In seven captivating case studies, Mark West shows how law influences people’s behavior and perceptions in everyday situations. Rather than trumping law, social norms are powerfully shaped by it. We learn that Japanese respond to incentives and penalties in ways very similar to people in other societies.

Readers who savor a unique and mystified Japan steeped in timeless customs are in for a jarring shock to their assumptions. West writes that “Japan cannot be boiled down to a few exotic Japanese keywords that explain everyone’s behavior, and attempts to do so often result in beautiful models of circular reasoning.”

By choosing themes off the beaten track of legal analysis, West demonstrates that even the quirkiest phenomena can be analyzed. He “examines the incentives created by law and legal institutions in everyday lives, the ways in which law intermingles with social norms, historically engrained ideas, cultural mores, and the phenomena that cannot easily be explained.” And he does so in a delightfully engaging manner.

As you may have suspected, “Japan is in many ways a loser’s paradise.” Everyone seems to have or know of an amazing story of lost and found. Why are people who lose something so “lucky” in Japan and resigned in New York? It is often assumed that Japanese are just more honest and that social mores play a more significant role here. Not so says West.

He asserts that Japan favors losers because the “law creates well-defined incentives to encourage finders to report their finds and disincentives to misappropriation. The law provides a simple system of carrots and sticks.” Owners of lost objects are required to pay the finder a fee based on an object’s value, and if no one claims the item after six months and two weeks, the finder can claim the object.

West went out and dropped mobile phones and wallets in New York and Tokyo, and as expected had a higher return rate in Tokyo. Rather than ascribing this to honesty — various studies show the United States and Japan are on a par — he explains the difference in terms of the laws and lost-property institutions. It is simply a lot easier to find a police box in Japan to turn in a lost item. And the incentives and penalties regarding return of lost items are clearer and far better known in Japan than in the U.S.

There are similar studies brimming with the insights of extensive fieldwork regarding sumo, debt suicide, working hours, post-earthquake rebuilding and karaoke noise pollution — but the payoff chapter focuses on love hotels. It is not for prurient reasons alone that he offers up a “peek at law’s role in a place where people in everyday Japan have lots and lots of sex.”

Love hotel regulation demonstrates just how powerful law can be in altering public attitudes and practices, even in an activity most regard as a private matter. He points out that the 1985 Entertainment Law de-stigmatized love hotels. Previously seen as seedy and shameful, the new law encouraged operators to upgrade their premises to make them more appealing to a wider clientele. The official imprimatur also reassured those who might have concerns about illicit scams.

By making love hotels more acceptable, the authorities have brought amateur sex indoors. Apparently, before World War II, parks were full of practicing amateurs while professionals remained indoors. Getting most of these couples inside has translated into an era of prosperity and growth in the industry.

The number of statutory love hotels has declined from 11,000 in the mid-1980s to about 7,000. The silver lining has been the surge in extra-legal love hotels — some 30,000 — that can avoid official designation as a love hotel if they met certain criteria. Local authorities have control over statutory love hotels so there is every incentive to design establishments that serve the same needs without risking official scrutiny.

Ever wonder why many have small lounges and cafes on the first floor? Why the glitzier new establishments lack rotating beds and mirrored ceilings? Legal incentives have shaped design and operations, and in doing so “created a healthier overall market for love hotels.”

Not everyone is enamored of the new trend. One love hotel “planner” who only works with “real” love hotels boasts high levels of customer satisfaction. He said, “My thinking might be juvenile, but I like to put things in the room that move. For instance, things like a tree swing with a built-in vibrator.”

Thus, as promised, West provides, “insight into Japanese law as it functions in society and into Japanese society through a study of its laws.”