Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan, Social Cohesion, and Book Recommendations

(Images stolen without permission from The Big Picture at, which always has the most dramatic pictures out there. For a more quotidian perspective, go here.)

A friend of mine wrote to ask what I thought of this blog post about the lack of looting in Japan compared to Katrina, Haiti, etc. Since he's also a history dork, I felt free to let loose my full nerdiness. Maybe you're nerdy about culture and politics too! If so, read on. If this seems too bloodlessly intellectual, it could just be that I'm at that particular stage of the grieving process. I appreciate the human spirit on display as much as anyone does, especially from those obachans up there doing their calisthenics.

My first reaction is that he's letting his political biases (which I share!) distort his view of the question. His basic argument is that the Japanese attitude towards government is more positive than the American attitude, and therefore government responsiveness both before and after the disaster was better (i.e. it "hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass" and the GOJ is well "prepared to respond to this kind of disaster"). Neither of these statements is as true as he thinks it is.

First, economic equality: Japan is good in terms of equality (copy that graph! It's hugely important), and certainly better than the US. But note that it's pretty close to France, whose rioting underclasses are not particularly known for their restraint (not judging!). I also think equality in Japan has been getting worse since the bubble burst (too bad the graph stops in 1990). There are no shortage of stories about poor job prospects for young people, etc. And it way too simplistic to ascribe the equality to government policy. (This is highly recommended on the roots of that equality.)

Second, you have to distinguish how amazingly prepared they were for earthquakes from how unprepared they were for the tsunami. As far as we can tell, pretty much everything was still standing for the 15 minutes between the quake and the tsunami, and of course the nuclear reactors shut down properly after the quake but started overheating when the tsunami knocked out the power to the cooling system. It is so astounding how well they weathered the FIFTH LARGEST EARTHQUAKE IN THE PAST 100 YEARS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. I mean, Christchurch was 6.3, and there have been about 15 AFTERSHOCKS that big in Japan. Also I suck at logarithms, but I'm pretty sure 9.0 is like 800 times bigger than 6.3.

(Further digression: I think I agree with Felix Salmon when he says "don't donate money to Japan." Japan has money. In fact they just created a whole bunch of it in response to the crisis; and the yen is at an all-time high against the dollar. (Why? Can you explain that?) The long-term economic effects may actually be positive--Kan (the PM) has called for a "New Deal," although I'm kind of worried that some global supply chains for electronic goods may be re-routed to China and Korea, etc., maybe permanently thanks to labor costs. Salmon's point is that giving money only to relieve the tugging on your heartstrings is not the best way to do it. Better just to give blood locally. Not that I do that either, but that's the better thing to feel guilty about.)

So how well is the government handling the relief effort? Better than average, from what I can tell. They're airlifting supplies in, too slowly but then these things take time. Most of the criticism they've had has been over lack of information on the nuclear situation. It's pretty typical of the Japanese government to be a bit slow getting information out. (A metaphor: Japanese doctors don't usually tell terminal cancer patients what's wrong with them, because that would just cause anguish.) But it's actually hard to judge how bad the nuclear situation is, or how much the media is reporting it because it's sexy. My twitter feed is a constant stream of "shut up about the nuclear plant, foreign media, the real story is half a million people without food or water or clothes or medicine, and now it's starting to snow." Oh but also "wow I never thought I'd be paying this much attention to Geiger counter readings." So yeah, conflicted. (Also: "Crap, the trains are really crowded, such-and-such a line is only running at 70% capacity.")

I think the point that there's just nothing dry to loot in a tsunami is more relevant, but of course he downplays that because it doesn't support his political point.

So no looting, but there's been hoarding. It's hard to say whether shortages on food staples (rice and bread) and gasoline are caused by hoarding or supply problems (this is the country that invented just-in-time delivery, because real estate is too expensive to keep large inventories), but they appear to be clearing up. Is hoarding evidence of a breakdown of social order that's not as severe as looting? It certainly argues against the idea that "their social dynamics focus on group harmony." On the other hand, the planned rolling blackouts in response to Fukushima-related energy shortages were more limited than expected because people made voluntary cut-backs in energy use. So that's nice.

Anyway, that brings up the question of "group harmony" as a cultural trait, which is the most difficult one to answer. Partly because it's a dumb stereotype and we don't want to be racist--I've seen so many dumb news stories on how the Japanese are so unified in their response, etc. (The dumbest are the ones about how "even in this disaster, the shelters are still separating their recyclables!" This is just AUTOMATIC for Japanese people, since burnable garbage is collected on different days than non-burnable, and goes in the green dumpster instead of the orange one. This is not a sign of social cohesion, it's just habit.) I think the roots of this stereotype are in a version of Orientalism, btw, which has been reinforced by a counter-Orientalism, which accepts the premise that Asians are less individualistic, etc., but claims that this is a good thing. Singapore's ex-president Lee Kwan-Yu is famous for arguing this. The book to avoid on the subject is Confucius Lives Next Door.

In general, Japanese life and Japanese politics are more contentious than they appear from the outside. There is already some muted criticism of the government from the opposition LDP, which before this happened was poised to undo the historic gains made by the DPJ last year, mostly because it (the LDP) has been incredibly obstructionist. Grassroots politics in Japan is fairly strong, which I suppose could account for some "social cohesion" and cooperation in response to the disaster, but this is a different explanation than the one that says it's because Japanese people trust their government. (In the Realm of a Dying Emperor is a good book about this, although a bit dated and very pessimistic, by an ASIJ alumna.)

But even more, the question of whether "group harmony" is cultural is so hard to answer because there are so many variables. Like, you could do game theoretical models that show that group-oriented responses are actually more rational than selfish ones in certain situations--this is how evolutionary biologists explain homosexuality, in case you need an evolutionary explanation for that--and perhaps some of these situations apply in Japan.

More generally, is it fair to say that looting is best described as a form of the moral economy that's been corrupted by the market economy? Or is that an oxymoron? Meaning: in the moral economy you respond extra-legally in order to correct a perceived economic injustice, by redistributing bread. Looting is also a correction of a perceived economic injustice, only instead of bread you do it with stereos or whatever. I'm not sure my thinking is correct on this. I bring it up just to say that I don't accept the idea that looting should be understood as a measure of "social harmony," whatever that means. I also wish I knew what the history of the moral economy is in Japan. I suspect there's an answer in Peasants, Rebels and Outcastes, which is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. But Embracing Defeat probably comes first.

And while I'm recommending books, I think Underground might be the best introduction to contemporary Japan. It's about the Aum-Shinrikyo subway attacks. It's by Haruki Murakami but it's non-fiction. It deals pretty well with some of these questions (does Japanese social cohesion lead to susceptibility to cults? but on the other hand maybe the attacks show a lack of social cohesion?) without coming to any conclusions.