Skip to content

Why no looting in Japan?

Amidst the heartbreaking devastation in Japan, many have noticed (especially this blog from the Telegraph) how much social solidarity — and little stealing — there has been. The Telegraph blogger Ed West notes vending machine owners giving out free drinks, in contrast to large-scale looting after Katrina.

Economists have been saying for a while that trust is a good candidate to be a major determinant of development. Think how much contract enforcement is critical to make trade and finance possible. Think how much easier contract enforcement is when nobody tries to cheat. This is supported by empirical studies correlating per capita income with a measure of trust, like that shown below, which is computed as …oh forget that, the current example is much more compelling.

Responding to tragedy, the Japanese have resources because they are rich, and it was their social solidarity that helped get them there.

HT Karina Zannat for pointing me to this.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. I agree that trust is important, but I’m not sure you’re not mistaking trust in this circumstance with socially imposed obligations through norms of behaviour. I’m not sure why a guy giving free drinks out of his vending machines is ‘trusting’ so much as just a decent guy doing a decent thing,

    I also note that USA scores above japan in trust in the graph you’ve reproduced there.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink
  2. Joe wrote:

    Problem is, your graph seems to show trust higher in the USA than JPN. Bad measure?

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:26 am | Permalink
  3. paul wrote:

    I also think trust is one important thing. And all the people do not need to consider the food or some thing people needs to alive.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink
  4. Dane wrote:

    While there are so many reasons why the graph above could be providing an incorrect picture (bad data, bad definition of trust, etc), perhaps one reason why the US scores higher in trust than Japan in the above picture (and yet Japan has no looting while Katrina had looting), is that the graph is measuring national trust levels. Perhaps trust in New Orleans is lower than the national average, and lower than the region in Japan struck by the earthquake.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:55 am | Permalink
  5. Dane: New Orleans is in Louisana. That the average level of trust there is lower than in, say, Maine is certainly a plausible call.

    I also seem to remember work that suggested the American South had lower levels of social capital generally than the US average. (The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.)

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 4:02 am | Permalink
  6. rjs wrote:

    japanese all think of themselves as japanese…but the US is divided by race, class & national origin…the ethnic diversity in the US works against us…

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  7. J. Floyd wrote:

    It has absolutely nothing to do with trust. It’s more about honor. Japan has a long standing tradition dating back to the days of the samurai regarding honor. Your graph is in-accurate. There is no way the US has more trust than Japan. It’s also wrong to compare Katrina to Japan. The japanese would find that offensive.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  8. There will never be any looting in Japan, they are a cultured people who have learnt over many hundreds of years. We in the west, well, the USA anyway have not had quite the same history. We have not had as many lessons on humility as in Japan.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  9. E. Kukula wrote:

    A more accurate way to describe it, I think, would be culture. The idea of placing oneself above others and not caring for others is an idea foreign to the Japanese, so they don’t think about it even in the time of a major crisis.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  10. It seems like a strange indicator to look at out of context of all the rest of society. I’m working in Senegal right now and find that there are high levels of trust in the informal economy among people who do business with each other, and have done business with each other over a long period of time. This kind of trust is absolutely critical, it seems, to survival, since very often people have to work/exchange goods/extend credit to each other based solely on one’s word. When resources are scarce, there must be trust to live, though it seems that perhaps trust is targeted. Economists, however, are unlikely to see this kind of trust, since it occurs via informal institutions and those just aren’t typically on the radar of any ‘experts’ doing any kind of measuring. And, we certainly wouldn’t call Senegal ‘developed’ using the conventional measures of development.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  11. Ray wrote:

    I would be careful about not confusing correlation with causation in this case. Maybe a part of this social cohesion that Japan is showing actually comes from another component: education. And I´m not talking about the amount of hours spent in school, I´m talking about that maybe the Japanese are raised to know how to behave in this kind of situation.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink
  12. zoomtokyo wrote:

    The Japanese do loot. AFter the evacuation of Miyakejima island south of Tokyo around 2000, after a volocano, groups of thieves arrived in boats and used power shovels to remove ATMs and break into people’s homes.
    In the earthquake now, there is so much destruction that there are no structures to loot.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  13. mike wrote:

    oh for gods sake… we are on DAY 4… and there HAVE been reports of looting already for those who don’t know.. Looting usually begins when supplys DIMINISH.. thats not gonna happen within 4 days.. give it a week…

    its also important to take into account the Japanese’s relationship with their government.. it is not the same as per say.. Black Americans who have for a long time been made to feel disenfranchised or in Haiti where the government/system establishment has been corrupt for so long having “respect” for the system amongst the masses is a laughable idea.. you cannot compare people across the globe completely ignorant of their individual histories and relationships to their government.. thats retarded

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  14. Isabelle wrote:

    Institutions – formal and informal, like ‘trust’, which itself develops out of reliable institutions or rules of the game that are respected, is what makes the difference. Not geography, not population, not culture.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  15. Roger McKinney wrote:

    Is it possible that the areas hit by the tsunami have nothing left worth looting and few people left to do the looting?

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  16. Katy wrote:

    This is a very interesting study and correlation between looting, trust and development but I’m not entirely convinced. The Japanese people have a culture of respectfulness and humility. They are a well disciplined people who have a strong tradition of collectivism and social solidarity. Take for instance their recovery post WWII. The Japanese system in place is just adept at responding to disasters and hardships. The people are well trained and prepared for such occurrences. While I’m sure trust plays a factor in development, I find it difficult to believe it’s as significant as this study presents. Japan not experiencing looting is due to their cultural tradition more so than trust.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  17. Dane wrote:


    While it may be day 4, a quick 5 minute search of the Internet shows that Hurricane Katrina Dissipated on August 30th. (lasting 7 days total). This msnbc article dated August 30th suggests that looters basically didn’t even wait for the hurricane to end.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  18. Is it just me or does that say that chart say China has a high level of trust?

    That is so wrong for so many reasons.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  19. ewaffle wrote:

    @ Bradley Gardner: It does look as if the PRC has the same level of “trust” (however that is measured here) as the Nordic nations. Strange findings.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  20. William Easterly wrote:

    To commentators noting that the graph shows an imperfect measure of trust that may not resonate with some perceptions of individual countries —

    you are right.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  21. angelica wrote:

    Asian cultures tend more towards the benefit of the group, (ethnic, family….) while western cultures are more self centered (me).

    my two cents

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  22. nanashi wrote:

    I am Japanese.

    A good evaluation is not needed.

    If you pray for Japan

    We are satisfied.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  23. John wrote:

    I definitely believe that the graph is uneccessary and inaccurate. I also believe that you are mistaking honor, integrity, and possibly social fear with trust. People in Japan are held accountable for their actions, “do the crime, do the time”. During Katrina, Americans calling themselves “victims” vented their loss (if they actually did lose anything) on other Americans, the government, their neighbor…….after they were given 3+ days notice to evacuate. The survivors in Japan are more concerned with their familes, and rebuilding what they had already built. Simply, people with honor and integrity, who have never stood in line for a handout, appreciate the severity of EVERYONE”S situation without the feeling of entitlement.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  24. peter adler wrote:

    @ Isabelle:
    do you mean that “reliable institutions or rules of the game” are not “culture”?!

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  25. Bob Johnson wrote:

    The 800 Lb gorilla is Japan is essentially one race. We are a mix of many. How they separate out in times of adversity is obvious.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  26. Brian wrote:

    There’s nothing left to loot!

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  27. steve wrote:

    Why no looting in Japan after tsunami and earthquake 2011

    Japan and Haiti earthquakes

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  28. DukeLaw wrote:

    I would think that Haitians consider themselves primarily of one race.

    It’s not just “looting”. It’s also the lack of stories regarding stealing after water/food have been distributed, which is also a common occurrence in aid distribution. I wouldn’t go as far to say that Japan is inherently a more “honest” society but there’s definitely more of an honor code regarding stealing/petty theft than I’ve seen in Europe, South America, here in the US or in China. A real interesting society to visit.

    Posted March 15, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  29. TGGP wrote:

    I think people have more trust because people are more trustworthy.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  30. rob wrote:

    you seem to have looted a photograph from REUTERS/Yomiuri Shimbun for your article on looting.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 3:32 am | Permalink
  31. mike wrote:

    its just a horrible scenario which is happening in japan

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  32. It is a beguiling graph, but it doesn’t represent what Bill would like it to. There’s a rich literature in both social psychology and legal sociology that shows Japan to be a relatively *low* trust society. The stickiness in social cohesion is a relatively high reliance on informal norms and sanctions – but these include distrustful tools like neighbourhood surveillance, CCTV, and a very low tolerance for individual autonomy and creative problem solving. State legal institutions also harness these norms of compliance in ways that would seem outrageous in the US. Do Japanese cheat on their contracts? All the time – but the social consequences of doing so (at least until recently) have been much more severe than any legal penalty. Bottom line? There are many more variables at play here than simply undifferentiated ‘trust’.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  33. Roger McKinney wrote:

    I haven’t seen any studies, but there is probably a high correlation between wealth and trust, too. The wealthier a nation becomes, the less benefit crime and corruption provide for the average person.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  34. “The wealthier a nation becomes, the less benefit crime and corruption provide for the average person.” Hmmm…what kind of crime and corruption are we talking about? Are we talking about poor people’s crimes, like mugging? Or the crimes of rich folks, ala Wall Street?

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  35. Jacob AG wrote:

    Is it me, or is Japan particularly prone to cultural explanations of economic phenomena? I remember about a zillion books coming out in the 80s and 90s about how Japan’s success could be explained in terms of its culture… (David Flath of Osaka University is very skeptical of these arguments, by the way, in his textbook on the Japanese economy)

    Prof Easterly, is it possible that you are making a similar mistake as the White Men who saw the economic fortunes of Asians, Africans, and Anglo-Saxons as being *obviously* the result of some cultural or racial aspect of their societies? Are there any structural economic characteristics of the Japanese economy other than culture that might encourage a peaceful or trusting response to disaster?

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  36. Roy Klein wrote:

    A friend of mine made this comment… Japan’s culture is very foreign to us. When I was there in the late 1980’s I saw things that I couldn’t believe. They have vending machines that distribute beer and hard liquor. I asked if they had a problem with teenagers buying from them and the answer was “Why would they? They are not old enough”. Gambling is totally illegal there yet Pachinko parlors are more popular than our casinos. You cannot win money at a pachinko parlor but if you get enough credits (say $50 worth) you go to the back of the room and they will give you a handfull of a trinket (maybe pencils). You leave the building, go around the corner and there is a window where they will buy your pencils for – guess what – $50! Many of the machines in these parlors are regular Bally 3 reel slots. Most use pachinko balls and play like a vertical pinball machine. Another example of Japanese integrity was when I went for a walk very early in the morning. Sometime overnight they had delivered numerous boxes of electronic goods to a Best Buy type store. All of the boxes were just sitting on the sidewalk! They wouldn’t last 5 minutes over here but were as safe as could be over there.

    Posted March 16, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Permalink
  37. Nick A wrote:

    Now put cultural homogeneity up against “trust” on another graph for me.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  38. Stevie wrote:

    This blog is such crap.

    Look at Andrew Sullivan’s summary of looting in Japan wherein not only individual people but also Japanese authorities that prove looting has happened in Japan:

    Looting, fraud, child molestation and hoarding.

    Posted March 17, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  39. C Jones wrote:

    There are a lot of things that Japan does not have, like:
    No obnoxious people
    No shabbily dressed people
    No fat people
    No drug addicts
    A language that is extremely easy on the ear, devoid of any form of swearing.
    Complete absense of the custom of telling jokes making fun at some particular ethnic group. “Did you hear the one about…” type of jokes do not exist.
    Peferctly neat and clean streets, everywhere, always. Who cleans the streets, the sanitation authorities? No, by and large litter never gets dropped in the first place. In neighborhoods, the residents themselves clean the streets.
    No unwashed people. Everyone bathes once a day without exception.
    No vandalism. They don’t even have a word for it. Very little in the way of graffiti, and have no word for such practice, other than “scribbling on walls.” Japanese cannot understand why delinquents in the west always want to trash everything. What is the point? In Japan, an uninhabited or abandoned house or school will stay untouched year after year after year. There is no bad service, anywhere. Very little in the way of petty theft. I have ridden a bicycle here for 20 years and have never once had it stolen or tampered with. What the do have in abundance: discipline, honor, perserverence, consideration of others; a you-first culture. In a society such as this, it is only natural that there also be no looting.

    Posted March 18, 2011 at 4:40 am | Permalink
  40. Sean wrote:

    “…the Japanese have resources because they are rich, and it was their social solidarity that helped get them there.”

    Over the long term, which way does the correlation go: Does trust lead to being rich? Or does being rich lead to greater trust?

    ‘Rich’ maybe isn’t the right word, but in a generally affluent society perhaps it’s easier to put other people’s needs first – compared to an environment where people’s needs are always so desperate that they have no other choice but to loot/steal/do what it takes to survive. Obviously the current situation in Japan is extremely desperate, but normal day-to-day life isn’t (compared to, say, Haiti as people have mentioned) and over time that would reinforce norms of trust, and of not looting in general.

    The point is that (for me, as a Canadian living a comfortable affluent life) I should feel less good about thinking I’m an altruistic helpful person – because having the time and resources to do that is a privilege.

    (And the looters in Haiti (and elsewhere) should be empathized with, not vilified. And a society like Japan’s – where people are able to put others first, even in emergencies – is something to strive for.)

    Posted March 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  41. sothis wrote:

    re: “There are a lot of things that Japan does not have, like:
    No obnoxious people
    No shabbily dressed people
    No fat people…”

    I call bullshit. I was in Japan for all of four days and I DEFINITELY saw homeless people.

    Maybe at least part of the reason we think there is no looting in Japan is that the western media doesn’t see a market for stories that contradict our imagined super-rigid, racially harmonious, zen-garden calm Japan. While on the other hand, they DID see a market for a good old “southern hicks and/or black people succumb to base urges” story.

    I’m not saying that maybe there aren’t interesting reasons why there is (possibly) less looting in Japan, just that maybe the difference isn’t as extreme as we might assume

    Posted March 23, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  42. whitman wrote:

    I don’t think that trust has very much to do with the low rate of looting in Japan; people come together in a state of crisis. Japan and America both have high economies; therefore, they are better prepared to handle tragedies such as hurricane Katrina and the earthquake/tsunami in Japan. You say in Japan because a man is giving out free drinks at his vending machine they have a higher level of trust compared to the United States because of looting after Katrina. If this is so, then why does the United States have a higher trust level than Japan on the chart you have provided us above?

    Posted March 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  43. Cameron Colbert wrote:

    I think that the most important difference between Japan and the US after Katrina is the sense of community and working toward the common good. In Japan, everyone thought how they could help the situation while, in the US, everyone thought how they could help themselves. I think it is this lack of concern for the common good that has led the US to be placed in such dire economic situations, as it has in the last few years. If Japan had acquired all of the debt that the US has in the last decade, the government would not have to solve the problem itself, as the people would be so concerned with their country’s future they would find ways to help the situation themselves (or just not cause the problem in the first place).

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  44. Chris B wrote:

    Your piece is terribly inaccurate. Please fact check first.

    Posted March 25, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

7 Trackbacks

  1. By Why no looting in Japan? | Global Health Hub on March 15, 2011 at 4:08 am

    […] post: Why no looting in Japan? AKPC_IDS += […]

  2. […] Easterly also has an interesting post in which he discusses why there has not been any looting so far in Japan. Bookmark on Delicious […]

  3. By Tuesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath on March 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    […] Trust. […]

  4. […] qué no hay saqueos en […]

  5. […] Por isso, eu não sei se concordo 100% com o Mr.X (um blog interessante, vale dizer), mas o fato é que se definirmos “cultura” de uma forma científica (há várias formas), como alguns teóricos de Jogos e outros de Desenvolvimento Econômico o fazem, então a resposta pode ser que a cultura pode ser importante, como o mostra Easterly. […]

  6. By Morning Coffee 16.03.2011 : Political Investor on March 16, 2011 at 2:58 am

    […] Why no looting in Japan? (Aid Watch) […]

  7. […] a response to Park’s post, William Easterly observes the economic importance of trust in this blog post for Adwatch, positing that Japan’s success in the economic realm may have something to do […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives