Lessons from Japan

I saw two pieces recently about the impact of the Japan earthquake in the country and in Asia: this Slate piece talks about how looting is much less common in Japan than it is in many other parts of the world when chaos and calamity strike. They opine that the culture of honesty, reciprocity and community is reinforced at all points by the state, and even, ironically, by organised crime syndicates:

Anyone who has seenBig Bird in Japan knows the shorthand for Japanese culture: They’re so honest and disciplined! They’re a collective society! They value the group over the individual! Of course they’re not going to steal anything after the most devastating natural disaster of their lifetimes—unlike those undisciplined thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans and post-earthquake Haiti. Even if they’re desperate for food, the Japanese will still wait in line for groceries.

There’s a circularity to these cultural explanations, says Mark D. West, a professor at University of Michigan Law School: “Why don’t Japanese loot? Because it’s not in their culture. How is that culture defined? An absence of looting.” A better explanation may be structural factors: a robust system of laws that reinforce honesty, a strong police presence, and, ironically, active crime organizations.

The second is a post by Kevin Kelly that talks about how it is important to encourage the culture that is touched upon above, by other countries in Asia, rather than depending on the West:

I have come to the conclusion that the highest leverage point in philanthropy right now would be to cultivate a culture of giving in Asia. That is to educate, reform, nurture, and expand philanthropy in Asian cultures.

A few tens millions spent now in seeding reform in current legal and tax regimes in order to encourage philanthropy, or millions spent educating and equipping the newly wealthy and soon-to-be wealthy, elevating role models, developing appropriate persuasions, and making giving in Asia cool for the average citizen — all these would “pay off” a million fold in a decade or two. This type of meta-giving — giving to increase the degree of giving — is long term investing of a different type.

I think it’s certainly an interesting proposition. Leaving aside the fact that overall, developed economies can contribute more to global development aid coffers simply because they are bigger, the fast-growing Asian ones like China and India can create a step change for their people if they enforce the spirit of philanthropy that currently far fewer people engage in, as Kelly says – a simple change that will in all probability be overlooked or not considered by policy makers.

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