There is some looting, and some tsunami related crime in Japan. You would not want to overstate the case. The situation is much better than it would be in most areas of the United States.
I do not want to go into too much of a lengthy discussion at this moment. But some of the reasons that the Japanese might have less problems than other countries are:
- Greater cultural homogeneity, and thus more group “buy-in”
- Sever nature of disaster leaves very little to loot
- As noted below a law enforcement regime that is very visible and prevalent. Japanese policemen still walk their beat.
Japan crisis: 'There’s no food, tell people there is no food’, Peter Foster, The Telegraph, March 19, 2011.
In Ichinomaki, and countless other stricken towns along the country’s northeast coast, raw necessity is starting to fray even Japan’s super-taut social fabric. “They are no longer Japanese,” bystander with a shiver of pity and disdain. “I don’t feel like this is Japan.”
Natural disasters have a cruel power to strip the dignity from both the living and dead, but in a country as polite and fastidious as Japan the process seems all the more brutal. “They are desperate, they have no other food to eat,” says a policeman guiding some emergency traffic at a nearby intersection. “You could call it stealing, but we understand that at these times there is perhaps no other choice.”
There are some signs of stealing in Ichinomaki — the supermarket cash-machine has been smashed open and on one ruined street a locked safe, the size of kitchen fridge, had been dragged out and fruitlessly vandalized — but broadly it feels as if law and order still hold sway.
The frustration is that Ichinomaki does have at least one working supermarket, opposite the town’s police station, but shoppers must queue for two or three hours, can buy only 10 items or fewer and must pay cash — not possible if your house has been washed away.
Stop, Thief! Thank You: Why so little looting in Japan? It's not just about honesty, Christopher Beam, Slate, March 16, 2011.
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.
Why No Looting In Japan? Ctd, the Daily Dish, The Atlantic, March 17, 2011.
The notion that there is no looting in Japan is a myth, and I'm frankly shocked that Gregory Pflugfelder (the Columbia professor quoted by CNN) bought into it, going so far as to say there's not even a word for looting. There is a word for this, and it's 火事場泥棒 (kajibadorobou). It literally means "thief at a fire," but it extends more broadly in a metaphorical sense to people who take advantage of a crisis to commit a crime.
And there are, in fact, reports of this happening.
There are reports of theft, there are reports of gangs of men going around trying to get into people's houses by pretending they're checking their gas or electricity, and there are news reports of people stocking up on supplies in exactly the way the family in the anecdote you posted suggested would be "selfish." Anyone who doesn't know this simply isn't following the story very closely.