The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Shaking the myth of post-disaster looters

The recent disaster in Japan provoked a tsunami of negative stories and commentaries. Some focused on the tragic fate of the thousands of Japanese people killed or otherwise affected by the monstrous earthquake and tsunami. Others presented Hollywood-style horror scenarios about the problems with one Japanese nuclear power plant. There were also those who criticized the scare stories and instead lamented about the pitiful state of contemporary risk-obsessed culture. The most “optimistic” report “expressed “relief” that the earthquake hit very developed and well-prepared Japan rather than some impoverished Third World countries were there would almost certainly be more deaths, chaos and misery than in Japan.

Yet, there was one issue that seemed to attract media audience because of its seemingly positive outlook rather than because of anything scary, sad or worth condemnation – the near absence of looting in at least the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Western commentators and public seemed genuinely shocked by the fact that most of the Japanese people behaved quite orderly instead of robbing, raping and running in amok. After all, we are all familiar with horrid stories from New Orleans, Haiti and even New Zealand. The immediate explanations of this alleged abnormality pointed to the Japanese culture and society that promoted cooperation, discipline and good manners. Other “experts” claimed that there was more to it than just culture of honesty and that one should also look at the Japanese legal system, its massive police force and even the infamous Yakuza in order to understand why the Japanese people did not all become mad criminals. All authors expressed hope that perhaps we too could learn something from the Japanese example.

One could say, that the stories about the predominantly calm, cordial and cooperative atmosphere in post-disaster Japan are very heartening and that its authors should be congratulated for bringing them to public attention. The only problem is that the notion that the case of Japan is qualitatively unique is completely wrong. As Johann Hari noted: “The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness.” Furthermore, this seems true “across continents and across contexts.” Indeed, in reality the media grossly exaggerated the horror stories of lawlessness in places like New Orleans, Haiti, Chile and New Zealand. Undoubtedly in the cases of Haiti and New Orleans, racist prejudices helped to convince the public already “suspecting” that black people, when not kept an eye on, will certainly run in amok to loot, kill and rape. In fact, the myth of rapes allegedly following disasters has been so powerful that despite no evidence, various newspapers continue mentioning it. Similarly, the commonly held image of the cold and well-mannered Japanese was a fertile ground for the “astonishing” reports of no looting.

What is really surprising about the stories of kindness and cooperation in Japan, is how we were all surprised by reading them. Perhaps it is time we reconsidered scenarios of chaos, lawlessness and violence related to natural disaster?

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