Japanese Earthquake Looters -- MIA

Larry Elder

3/17/2011 12:01:00 AM - Larry Elder

"Why no video of looters in Japan?"

Japan's prime minister calls the 9.0 earthquake and the following tsunami the greatest crisis in Japan since World War II. Ten thousand people are feared dead. Millions are without power, and millions sleep outdoors in cold weather. But we haven't seen looting. So I posted this question on Facebook and Twitter.

"Race is not an issue," Mike replied. "Third World countries like Haiti loot due to poverty. Japan is like America, an economic superpower. Plain and simple."

"Poverty equals crime" is the standard "plain and simple" explanation, especially to the left. The analysis contains holes big enough to drive a Hummer through.

In the "economic superpower" called America, we see widespread looting following natural disasters, as well as during power blackouts, "civil unrest" and basketball team victory celebrations. If we attribute this to American poverty, what about Japanese poverty?

"Japan Tries to Face Up to Growing Poverty Problem," read the headline of a 2010 New York Times article. Here are excerpts:

"After years of economic stagnation and widening income disparities, this once proudly egalitarian nation is belatedly waking up to the fact that it has a large and growing number of poor people. The Labor Ministry's disclosure in October that almost one in six Japanese, or 20 million people, lived in poverty in 2007 stunned the nation and ignited a debate over possible remedies that has raged ever since.

"Many Japanese, who cling to the popular myth that their nation is uniformly middle class, were further shocked to see that Japan's poverty rate, at 15.7 percent, was close to the ... 17.1 percent in the United States, whose glaring social inequalities have long been viewed with scorn and pity here. ...

"Following an internationally recognized formula, the (Labor Ministry) set the poverty line at about $22,000 a year for a family of four, half of Japan's median household income. Researchers estimate that Japan's poverty rate has doubled since the nation's real estate and stock markets collapsed in the early 1990s, ushering in two decades of income stagnation and even decline."

If Japan's percentage of people living below the poverty line is about the same as ours, and if poverty causes crime as Mike suggests, why isn't the crime rate in Japan about the same as ours?

San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1960s became one of the most impoverished areas in California. Public policy professors James Q. Wilson and Richard Hernstein wrote: "One neighborhood in San Francisco had the lowest income, the highest unemployment rate, the highest proportion of families with incomes under $4,000 per year, the least educational attainment, the highest tuberculosis rate and the highest proportion of substandard housing. ... That neighborhood was called Chinatown. Yet, in 1965, there were only five persons of Chinese ancestry committed to prison in the entire state of California."

Two low-income areas outside of Boston -- South Boston and Roxbury -- were featured several years ago in U.S. News & World Report. They had similar socio-economic profiles: high levels of unemployment; the same percentage of children born to single-parent households; and the same percentage of people living in public housing. But the violent crime rate in Roxbury, predominately black, was four times higher than that of South Boston, predominately white.

Culture and values explain why some countries and some communities experience crime, while others do not. This explains why many students from Asian countries outperform equally "disadvantaged" black and brown students from the same "underperforming" inner-city government schools.

Culture and values explain a 2011 article headlined, "New Zealand Police 'Sickened' at Looting in Quake-Hit City": "New Zealand police said ... they were 'sickened' at a spate of looting, email scams and bogus appeals for charity in the wake of the deadly Christchurch earthquake. ... Lootings and burglaries, including one at the home of a woman feared dead in the disaster, have also been reported, while fraudulent emails soliciting charity donations were also doing the rounds." The Japanese earthquake was over 8,000 times more powerful than the New Zealand quake earlier this year.

Culture and values explain the fear in Egypt and Libya of looting from museums that house precious historical and cultural artifacts.

Culture and values explain why in Los Angeles, a city with a 46 percent Hispanic population and a 10 percentage Asian population, one sees no Latinos or Asians holding up "Will Work for Food" signs. When South Korea played for soccer's 2010 World Cup, the Los Angeles Korean community received permits to view games on big-screen monitors in the streets near Koreatown. The police said the streets were more trash-free after the games than before.

Culture and values are not set in stone. They can and do change for the better -- especially when we accept responsibility and stop blaming bad behavior on poverty. Plain and simple.