Why no Japanese looters? Because they stand to one side on the escalator. 8

Japan EscalatorLike most, I was horrified by the images of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated large areas in Japan. As expected, the news coverage had all the anticipated shots: flooding, property damage, distressed adults, crying children, widespread carnage in general. Much of the footage was similar to that seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With one glaring exception…

I have yet to see footage, nor have I heard any reports of, looting in Japan.

I read one online discussion that attributed this phenomenon to the fact that the Japanese are a homogeneous race, noting that it was almost exclusively black people who did the looting in New Orleans, thereby concluding that certain races must be more likely to loot than others.  That’s completely absurd. There’s simply no evidence to reach such a stupid conclusion. The population in New Orleans affected by Katrina was predominately black, and therefore any individual committing any act – whether an act of bravery, crime, heroism, looting, rescue, or violence – had a higher statistical probability of being black, just by sheer population mathematics. Consider the news footage during the 1992 L.A. riots. I see every possible skin tone running through the streets carrying VCRs in those shots, with the races of the looters accurately correlating to the racial makeup of the neighborhood’s general population. So you can toss that racist rhetoric. There is no racial link to looting.

I read another explanation on a friend-of-a-friend’s Facebook wall. He claimed: “There is nothing to loot in the affected area in Japan. Dont [sic] fool yerself, people are people and survival mode kicks in. If you are without food, water, electricity for a while in a major metro area, and there was no help coming, the stores would be cleaned out… no matter what country.”

I also reject this assumption. The looting that occurred in 1992 in L.A. and in 2005 in New Orleans didn’t happen “a while” after the disasters – it happened almost immediately. And the looting had very little to do with the looters’ access to food, water, or electricity. Sure, that may have been the case for a few, but certainly not the majority. Looting isn’t a racial thing, it’s an American thing. Americans in those affected areas sensed that “nobody was watching the store,” and freed of the fear of punishment, those Americans decided that the laws were meaningless. Or maybe they believed that the “rich” owners of those stores didn’t “deserve” to own those items, and they took it upon themselves to redistribute the wealth. Regardless, it’s my observation that too many Americans don’t care about how their actions affect other people. Please note I didn’t say all Americans, or even most Americans (although if pressed, I have to admit I personally believe the latter to be true). Whatever the true percentage is, it’s probably higher than any of us would like to admit, and it’s still too high.

So why haven’t we seen reports of looting in Japan?

Because the Japanese stand to one side on the escalators.

OK. Stay with me here.

In most U.S. airports, the moving sidewalks generally have a line drawn down the middle of the platform with STAND stenciled on one side and WALK on the other. Sometimes, there’s even a voice overhead asking travelers to stand to one side to allow others (who may be trying to make a tight connection) to walk past them. Me? I’m a walker. And in all my years of air travel, I can’t recall even a single time where I’ve ever been able walk end-to-end along the moving sidewalk unobstructed, without having to weave through traffic, or stand uncomfortably close behind someone, or say “excuse me” at least once to some knucklehead in my path who is either oblivious to (or blatantly disregardful of) the instructions.

At the end of every flight I’ve taken since the invention of the cell phone, the very second the wheels touch down I hear dozens of phones beeping to life (I’m guilty of this too, but only to silently check in via FourSquare at my destination). It almost never fails: there’s always at least one blowhard who just has to carry on a conversation for the entire duration of the plane’s taxiing, at a volume level loud enough for the pilot to hear through the cockpit’s bulletproof door. These ignorami never spend a single brain cycle considering how their conversation may affect anyone else. They are important, dag nabbit, and this phone call has waited for 6 hours and 40 minutes during a flight from Seattle to New York… and it can’t wait another 5 minutes!

I usually fly Delta into the Seattle International Airport, meaning I generally land at the S concourse, which requires me to take a short train ride to the main terminal. It never ceases to surprise me that nearly every set of doors will have one or two travelers standing directly in front of them (with their roll-away carry-on, of course),  never thinking for a moment that the train arriving at the S terminal from main terminal has an extremely high probability of containing passengers travelling on flights leaving from the S terminal, and these door-crowders always look put out when they have to make way for those disembarking the train. I see the exact same phenomenon on elevators. People waiting for an elevator seem genuinely dumbfounded when the elevator doors open and their ingress is hampered by those looking to egress. As if they’ve never calculated the probability that someone else might actually have gotten on the same elevator on a different floor.

The first thing I noticed on my first trip to Tokyo was the escalators that connect the JapanRail train platforms to the train terminals. Millions of people travel through the Tokyo rail system every day, and orderly flow is facilitated by the fact that there is a constant stream of walkers on the left side of the escalators, and standers on the right. Not a single step goes unused. It’s not hyperbole when I say I’ve never had to stand still on a Tokyo train station escalator… ever. There are no signs or overhead voices, either. It’s as if everyone just silently recognizes that the considerate thing to do if you’re not in a hurry is to simply get the &$*% out of the way.

It’s the same thing waiting to get on a train from the platform. Passengers stand in two diagonal lines at the outer edges of the marked spots on the platform where the train’s doors will stop and open. And when they do, passengers on the train gush out, there’s a very brief pause, and then as many people as possible from the the two diagonal lines rush onto the train. It’s packed pretty tight during rush hour, but it’s still organized, and it’s still considerate.

Once on the train, I noticed that everyone (and that’s not hyperbole, either), I mean everyone either has a cell phone or a hand-held game system. But they’re all on mute, or the owner is using headphones. I found it interesting that you’re not allowed to talk on a cell phone while riding on a train in Japan. You can text, but no talking. And I never saw anyone break that rule.

Now I’m not claiming that Japanese societal interaction is flawless. It’s not. I’ve read the signs in the train stations aimed at the pervy old dudes that say “Please don’t touch the school girls.” But still, whenever I’ve visited Japan, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense that they tend to consider how their actions impact those around them far more than Americans do. The Americans who looted did so because they put their own well being above that of anyone else (particularly the store owners). That’s not to say that the Japanese aren’t self-interested. Anyone who’s done business over there knows that’s simply not the case. But they do seem to have clear thresholds where self-interest simply isn’t allowed to cross, and those thresholds seem far lower than the ones I see here in the States. Maybe the Japanese don’t even consciously realize it. Maybe they just subconsciously accept that standing to one side on an escalator, and not blabbing on your phone when you’re 6 inches away from someone else, and waiting for people to get off the train before you get on is the right thing to do because it takes others’ needs into account.

I don’t expect to see looting in Japan, even if conditions do worsen over there. It’s just not how they roll. And I’d really love to imagine that the next time something awful happens here at home, the first thing on people’s minds isn’t how they’re going to get that free 60″ flatscreen into the back of their pickup. But we’ll never get there unless we start stepping to the side, waiting our turn, and not yapping on our cell phones when it’s inappropriate (that goes double if you’re in a movie theater).

The Christian ethics of “Do unto others…” and “Love thy neighbor” really are an optimal way to live… even if you’re Shinto. 🙂