Japan’s orderliness and civility often impressed me during my years living in Japan, but never more so than after the Kobe quake. Pretty much the entire port of Kobe was destroyed, with shop windows broken all across the city. I looked all over for a case of looting, or violent jostling over rescue supplies. Finally, I was delighted to find a store owner who told me that he’d been robbed by two men. Somewhat melodramatically, I asked him something like: And were you surprised that fellow Japanese would take advantage of a natural disaster and turn to crime? He looked surprised and responded, as I recall: Who said anything about Japanese. They were foreigners.
Japan has an underclass, the burakumin, and also treats ethnic Koreans with disdain. But compared to other countries, Japan has little extreme poverty and a greater sense of common purpose. The middle class is unusually broad, and corporate tycoons traditionally were embarrassed to be seen as being paid too much. That sense of common purpose is part of the country’s social fabric, and it is especially visible after a natural disaster or crisis.
I don’t want to overdo that. Japan’s civility masks problems with bullying from schools to the work place, gangs like the yakuza rake in profits from illegal activity, and politicians and construction tycoons exchanging favors so as to loot the taxpayer. But it was striking in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake to see even the yakuza set up counters to give away supplies to earthquake survivors. And Japan’s social fabric never tore. Barely even creased.
A wonderful reflection on Japanese society by Nicholas Kristof