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Why Japanese Don't Loot

They're bred not to.

By Will Offensicht  |  April 5, 2011

Our articles sometimes garner comments that stimulate us to further thought.  When we wrote about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, our Gentle Readers wanted to know why the Japanese didn't loot while victims of every other recent major disaster did.  One reader commented:

I don't think race has anything to do with it.  I do think class and culture do.  The primary difference between Japan and New Orleans?  No welfare state.  That's not to say Japan doesn't have a welfare program, but they made a choice to not follow a western model.

"Culture" is a large factor - Japan has been so crowded for so long that the people have had to learn to get along in order to not starve - but it can be argued that race contributes, too. defines "race" as a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.  Most people use "race" to refer to people who can be identified by external visual characteristics as belonging to a sub-group of humanity such as blacks, whites, or Asians.

When people live close enough together to have common descent, they're subject to similar pressures of natural selection.  The intense tropical sun confers reproductive advantage on dark-skinned people because they're less subject to skin cancer.  The northern sun favors light-skinned people who can make vitamin D in weak sunlight.  Everyone alive is the result of natural selection working on his or her ancestors all the way back to the beginning, in every location and environment in which they found themselves at the time.

Japanese Selective Breeding

The Japanese islands were mostly isolated from the rest of the world for two millennia.  Whoever originally crossed to Japan from the Asian land mass brought along the techniques of growing rice in flooded paddies, so that's what the Japanese did.

Rice fields are flooded a few inches deep.  There's a lot of work in the spring when farmers plant rice shoots by hand, and there's an enormous amount of work during the fall harvest.  All the farmers have to do the rest of the time is keep the dikes in shape and they can reliably eat next year.

It's supposed to be this wet.

Rice farmers may have to move a lot of water by hand during an especially dry year, but Japan is generally a very rainy country.  Over the centuries, various simple techniques of hydraulic engineering were developed in order to minimize the manual labor required to operate the overall system.

Each village has a pond on top of a hill or an intricate network of canals to draw water from a stream.  The precious water trickles slowly through each field in turn.  If anybody lets a dike leak, the leak grows, drains the water source, and wipes out all the rice.  Any single individual with ownership of even the smallest paddy can starve the whole village by goofing off.

This insurmountable fact of mutual responsibility holds to a certain extent in pretty much any agricultural society.  Ancient Jewish law provided for getting rid of irresponsible individuals who wouldn't do what they were told:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

 - Deuteronomy 21:18-21

However, of the various major feed-grains, rice is by far the most communal and the most prone to one individual's actions ruining things for the entire town.  Lessons thus bred into a population over thousands of years go deep.  Even today, the common Japanese idiom for selfish behavior is, "Drawing water to one's own rice paddy."

The Western question "Am I my brother's keeper?" is not a question in Japan - of course everybody is.  Millennia of wresting rice crops from unfriendly mountainsides has ingrained the lesson that a slacker can harm the whole village, so everybody watches everybody else.

What about innovation?  If some entrepreneur tries growing rice in a new way and fails, he kills our fields along with his.  Would you let anyone experiment?  Nope!  We are all going to grow rice the way we know works; no messing around.

The rice farming mentality is wonderful for mass production because everyone cares about quality, but it retards innovation.

The Inevitability of Famine

When limited to muscle-powered irrigation, the Japanese rice crop failed every five to twenty years.  During a famine, the fundamental problem is keeping people from coming to lunch when you haven't invited them.  The movie Seven Samurai and its derivative The Magnificent Seven explore hard-working farmers' efforts to repel moochers; as in modern America, efforts to beat back the moochers tend to be more successful in the movies than in real life.

Rice farming is so productive that farmers can afford to give up more than the traditional 10% of the crop to anyone with enough power - military, moral, or economic - to hold enough rice to feed them when the crop fails.  Japanese castles are really glorified rice storage bins, not merely for the lord's lavish parties, but to keep the peasantry alive during famine.

Farmers know that crop failure is coming, if not next year then the one after that.  Famine is not one of these "every fifty or hundred year" things that might not come during a person's lifetime; it will take place, and soon.

Japanese workers labor to take care of their employer during good times.  It is the Japanese employer's duty to plot and scheme to accumulate a surplus to feed the employees during bad times.  People do as they're told and the boss keeps the food coming, much as Joseph did on Pharaoh's behalf in ancient Egypt.

The Japanese Way

This is the fundamental pattern of Japanese success: a few respected bosses plan and innovate while a mass of docile but dedicated and highly educated workers make it all happen.  The workers have the intelligence to know it's important to follow directions and enough sense of conformity to work well together.

By tradition, Japanese public education deliberately stifles individual initiative, and leaders view individual initiative as disruptive.  Both government and business prefer a well-trained populace who can follow complex directions without having to be told more than once.

That's why they were able to get parts of their society functioning again so fast after the devastation of World War II and the recent tsunami.  The Japanese hierarchy is robust and more or less self-assembling as required.

As soon as the ground stopped shaking, everyone still alive quickly sorted out who had the responsibility for making temporary arrangements in each area.  Then everybody got behind the leadership and got to work.  There was no need to debate the best way to house everyone or to argue over who should be Big Cheese; this was a time for doing, not discussing.  Coordination and cooperation won the day.

A strong sense of cooperation doesn't necessarily rule out looting, but until WW II, Japanese expected to be punished if their neighbors misbehaved.  The Imperial government punished the entire household of anyone who committed a crime, and also the families on either side and the family directly across the street.  Just to be sure, they'd also reprimand the two families diagonally across the street.  Any miscreant would bring punishment on six families so everyone watched out for everybody else.

It was illegal to move to another village.  Anyone who couldn't get along with his neighbors couldn't move elsewhere to get a new start - there was no such thing.  Fatal accidents tended to happen to anyone who stepped too far out of line because nobody wanted to get the government irritated with the village.

European feudalism theoretically had similar restrictions, but in practice they weren't anything like as strong.  Europe as a whole was enormously larger than Japan, and the independent city with its own special rights of citizenship existed across England and most of the Continent.  So a really, really dissatisfied European peasant did have at least decent odds of being able to successfully move elsewhere and start over.  Japan, being small and under a single absolute rule, offered no such escape, and this didn't change until the mid-1800s.

Americans never had any effective movement restrictions, but most Americans used to believe that the all-seeing eye of God watched everyone and disapproved of wrong behavior.  In Japan, the watchful, all-seeing eye of the neighborhood was more pervasive, more immediately effective, and certainly more visible when keeping order.

Because of history and geography, all Japanese who are alive today are the result of an accidental selective breeding program which emphasized order, cooperation, self-sacrifice, conformity, and following the leadership.  To whatever extent the Japanese constitute a race, their sense of order which precluded looting is an inbred racial characteristic just as the tallness which has resulted in a mostly-black NBA is a racial characteristic.

Why don't Japanese loot?  In the most scientifically literal sense: they're far too well-bred for that.