People around the world have marveled at the lack of mass-looting in Japan among the survivors of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Many people are still asking: Why was there no mass-looting?

People are undoubtedly comparing the incident in Japan with other natural disasters in the world when people under similar circumstances did loot. And they didn’t just loot food or necessities, but big screen TVs and other “must-have” household appliances.

Some plausible reasons for looting are: panic, greed, and because everyone else is doing it. Looting has become the norm, the expected.

One person suggested the Japanese didn’t loot because they had more faith in their government to provide for them during a crisis. Hmmm. I doubt it.

Others suggested it is the “wa” mentality, where harmony of the group is put above the individual. Hmmm.

Another person suggested it was somehow related to the fact that the Japanese return lost items — giving an expose on how lost things are most always returned to their owners in Japan, including wallets, cash and umbrellas.

I might add that there is an incentive in Japan to turn things in — if no one claims the item, you have the rights to it. Thus, you get to feel like a hero for turning it in and have a chance to keeping it legally. When I turned in a wallet one time, the policeman told me that I was entitled to a reward from the owner if he came in to claim it. Unfortunately, the owner was a high school student who didn’t have any money in his wallet anyway. Just notes passed in class and girls’ phone numbers.

I’d like to offer a more plausible, politically incorrect answer as to why the Japanese didn’t participate in mass looting: integrity.

One common experience among foreigners coming to work in Japan for a year or more is that when they leave Japan, they leave a more polite person. As a foreigner, you learn that certain things that may be accepted back home are just not tolerated here. Petty crime (who stole my plastic gnome lawn ornament?!), verbal assaults on store clerks, and anger in the form of furrowed brows, pursed lips and the occasional disgruntled snort, are not accepted here.

So while in my society, an angry, gnome-stealing person may be normal, in Japan such people are thought to be selfish and dishonest. And, by God, you don’t just take things because they’re not chained down! Once you know the rules of a society, however, it’s surprisingly easy to adjust your own behavior to fit into that society.

Two adjectives that immediately come to mind when describing the Japanese: polite and harmonious. Which makes me wonder, if you are not polite or harmonious, what are you?

While Japan has a group-oriented society, in the U.S. we like to describe ourselves as focusing on the individual. Our society teaches us cognitive thinking: look, evaluate, then decide whether to loot or not (often times justifying our actions with, “If I don’t take it, someone else will anyway”). The Japanese, on the other hand, look, evaluate and still don’t loot. The point is, “That item doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the store owner.” This is selfless, which, I hate to point out, is the opposite of selfish. Sniffle.

There is an easy way to expose the flaws in our own thinking, just in case you’re wondering what yours are. All you have to do is rearrange your way of thinking in much the same way you rearrange the furniture in your house. For example, I once met an angry, exasperated tourist who had just come out of the post office. “Why is it,” he wanted to know, “that in Japan the trains are so exact but they can’t even run an efficient post office?” After mentally moving the couch from one side of the room to the other, and replacing it with the dog’s armchair, you could say, “Why are the post offices so efficient in my country but the trains always so late?”

Is it the presence of “wa” that prevents people from looting, or is it the power of the individual that allows them to loot? “Selfishness” is a word societies need to think about.

An honest society is not unique to the Japanese. Ask your own parents or grandparents and they will surely tell you how it used to be, when there was more respect, less crime and no road rage. But whereas we have slowly lost our integrity, the Japanese have not lost theirs.

Although an individual-based society can also be a good society, when it comes to a crisis, you can only hope that people will be less selfish, and more selfless.

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