Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

Fukushima Daiichi Plant – Flickr photo by digitalglobe-imagery

My heart and thoughts are with the Japanese people.  Dealing with either of the menaces facing the country — the horrific aftermath of the tsunami or the gradual meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant — would be more than enough, to say nothing of dealing with both simultaneously, and with a disaster that may leave hundreds or thousands of square miles of a crowded Japan uninhabitable for decades.

There have been some interesting articles on how Japanese society, Japanese cultural group values social capital, and reciprocity, are or will aid Japan’s effort to rebuild.  As the conservative Financial Times‘ Lex column noted, despite the continued weakness of Japanese government leaders, “Japan’s hidden strengths are being under-appreciated, not least by its own public….In Nietzsche’s formulation, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This disaster will not kill Japan, and it could emerge psychologically stronger if the aftermath of the quake is handled well. Everyone knows there’s no god to put the stone back on the catfish [the Japanese folk wisdom that earthquakes are the thrashings of a giant catfish below the earth]. People have to do it themselves. The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is the reservoir of social capital that has sustained it through two tough decades.” And the FT Lex column wrote: “The social capital of a well-organised government and solidarity among the people is priceless.”

Where does this Japanese solidarity come from?  Slate has a column pointing to several factors:”

Honesty, with incentives. Japanese people may well be more honest than most. But the Japanese legal structure rewards honesty more than most. In a 2003 study on Japan’s famous policy for recovering lost property, West argues that the high rates of recovery have less to do with altruism than with the system of carrots and sticks that incentivizes people to return property they find rather than keep it. For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder’s fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don’t pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child’s first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst….

Even Japan’s organized crime (the yakuza) has their rules and culture.  As Slate observes, “They make their money off extortion, prostitution, and drug trafficking. But they consider theft grounds for expulsion….

“That’s not to say that a culture of reciprocity and community doesn’t play a role in the relatively calm response to the quake. It’s just that these characteristics are reinforced by systems and institutions. Adelstein quotes an old Japanese saying that explains the reciprocal mindset: “Your kindness will be rewarded in the end. Charity is a good investment.” But there’s a flipside, too: Unkindness will be punished.”  [Slate, “Why so little looting in Japan“, 3/17/11, Christoper Beam.]

Contrast this report of high levels of Japanese trustworthiness with this AP report of a coziness between the nuclear power industry executives and the government: ” ‘Everything is a secret,’ said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California. ‘There’s not enough transparency in the industry.’ Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami. In 1989 Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in the Tokyo Electric Power Co., but nothing happened – for years. He decided to go public in 2000. Three Tepco executives lost their jobs.” [AP, “Nuclear Power Industry has History of Scandals“, 3/17/11]

Nevertheless, assuming that the Japanese are more honest or trusting, these are not monolithic concepts. If one graphed average Japanese levels of trust of various out-groups (say trust of family, trust of kin, trust of co-workers, trust of neighbors, trust of strangers) you get at what sociologists refer to as the “radius of trust”.  The Japanese have very high levels of trust of family and kin, much higher than Americans, for example.  But the slope of this trust line trails off much more steeply towards distrust as one gets towards more distal groups.  The same line plotted for an average American would look much flatter, with more similar levels (than in Japan) for closer in and more distal groups.  As a result, trust of family is much higher in Japan, but trust in strangers is, on average, higher for Americans. It will thus be important for the Japanese to use approaches, like the emperor’s recent remarks, to help build a stronger sense of communal trust with more distant groups.

Solidarity: although the Japanese do have a strong sense of solidarity, this has often been built off of high levels of distrust or a social shunning of outsiders:  for example, the ainu (indigenous Japanese) are treated quite poorly, in the same way as Americans treat Native Americans.  The strong sense of social solidarity makes it far more difficult for westerners (gaijin) to be truly accepted into Japanese society.  Moreover, the relative low levels of diversity in Japan, make it easier to have this sense of solidarity than in a far more diverse place than the US.

In addition, it is extremely important to differentiate short-term from longer-term social capital and altruism in a post-disaster situation.  High social capital in the immediate aftermath of disasters is nothing unique to the Japanese.  As my colleague Bob Putnam has written, almost all disasters produce initial high levels of social capital as people work to help stricken neighbors or countrymen.  The $64,000 question is the staying power of these impulses.  America saw a quick wave of civicness and altruism post 9/11 that fizzled within 6 months (as our polling showed).  [See Putnam’s “A Better Society in a Time of War“] The real litmus test for Japan’s recovery will be their level of co-operation andaltruism a year or two from now.  Along these lines, some sort of continual brownouts for the rest of the country, as bad as they may be for the economy, may help all of them to have a sense of participation in the pain and suffering of those in the Northeast of Honshu who have suffered the most.

See also, “Why the Japanese Aren’t Looting” (Thomas Lifson, American Thinker, 3/15/11) and “Why the Japanese behave better than Westerners” (The Telegraph, Ed West, 3/18/11)

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One response to “Japan’s catastrophy, social capital and order

  1. The situation seems to get steadily worse in Japan

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