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Japan's "civilized" response to the earthquake and tsunami has inspired all the wrong questions

Sometimes a compliment can be the worst insult possible

Tsunami devastation
Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami have evoked an outpouring of support for Japan.  Oh sure, facebook has seen a handful of clever updates like "Japan had it coming..." and "The earthquake is just God's way of getting you back for Pearl Harbor," but overall the response has been overwhelmingly supportive, sometimes to a (pardon the pun) fault. 

In their rush to praise and celebrate Japan's response (which has been incredible by any measure), some journalists and more than a few zealous readers have displayed a racism that is simultaneously subtle and obvious.

Consider this piece in The Telegraph by Ed West.

And solidarity seems especially strong in Japan itself. Perhaps even more impressive than Japan's technological power is its social strength, with supermarkets cutting prices and vending machine owners giving out free drinks as people work together to survive. Most noticeably of all, there has been no looting, and I'm not the only one curious about this.

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This is quite unusual among human cultures, and it's unlikely it would be the case in Britain. During the 2007 floods in the West Country abandoned cars were broken into and free packs of bottled water were stolen. There was looting in Chile after the earthquake last year - so much so that troops were sent in; in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina saw looting on a shocking scale.

Well, Mr. West, since you mention it, Katrina did see a lot of "looting".  It also saw substantial scavenging.  We express dismay at the former and admiration for the latter, but as the pictures and captions below show rather well, which it is often depends in large part on who is looking and who he/she is looking at.

looting vs finding in Katrina and Japan

Looting vs finding in Katrina. It's all in the eye of the beholder.

None of this is to suggest that the Japanese are looting rather than scavenging.  The point rather is that finding available food and water in an emergency is hardly something that should be criticized.  Mr. West laments that during the 2007 floods in Britain, "free packs of bottled water were stolen." Yet, the water was free (it was reportedly left on the pavement for those who needed it) and Mr. West has no evidence that it was used for any other purpose.

Still, it is not Mr. West's choice of words that I lament but the spirit in which the question is asked.  The implication -- not just West's but of seemingly thousands of readers -- is that Japan's culture is somehow superior, not just to Britain's or to the United States' but to the rest of the world.

Here's an example that appeared on the air:

Because Japanese culture, unlike all other modern cultures, is based primarily on honor and dignity. Unlike our Katrina disaster, the Japanese don't see this as an opportunity to steal everything in sight. The so-called civilized world can learn much from the stoic Japanese. (source)

It seems innocent. It isn't. 

This comment, as well as much of the discourse about the supposed superiority of the Japanese people/culture/civilization, is based on an assumption that is not only not useful but actually dangerous. The assumption is that it is possible to rank-order nations/cultures on some supposedly objective hierarchy of "civilization".

To see how this is not useful, consider a much more personal version of the same assumption -- that it is possible to rank-order the members of your family based on each person's "civilization" quotient.  Doesn't the very idea seem offensive?  Why is rank-ordering cultures any less so?

But there's more here than mere political correctness. Let's assume, for the moment, that this familial hierarchy is worth establishing and that you decide to actually engage in this process:

Who gets to decide what is considered "civilized"?

You?

Your cousins?

Your uncles?

Does not the very definition of "civilized" differ depending on who gets to decide?

The Japanese culture is neither superior nor inferior to any other. To be sure, there is much to admire, especially now when, as Washington Times columnist James Picht points out, conformity and consensus are clearly virtuous and adaptive.  In normal times, Picht observes, "concerns about appearance and obligation" may be stifling, but during an emergency they may be what prevents the Japanese from "the urge to smash and grab." 

This doesn't make the Japanese culture superior, just different.

And it doesn't make the Japanese any less worthy of our admiration and support. It just doesn't make them any more worthy than Haitians, Chileans, and yes, Americans.

So, let's keep celebrating Japan's undeniable grace under fire, but let's do it without the not so-subtle anti-Haiti/Black rhetoric about "looting" and "plundering".  After all, anything less on our part would be, well, "uncivilized".

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Creative Commons License  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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