A reader writes:
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.
To be fair, you do have to somewhat look for stories like this about looting and crimes, because it's a myth that the Japanese media buys into. The terrible Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 was also covered as if everyone acted calmly and there were no crimes, but in fact historical distance reveals that numerous thefts and rape incidents occurred as awful people took advantage of this situation.
The idea that there is no looting in Japan is just the positive side of the standard stereotype about how Japanese people are cold, emotionless automatons. This is not to say that Japanese people are uniquely bad, but they're not uniquely good either. They're like anyone else. Most people in a crisis do their best to stick together and help each other, but there are also immoral monsters who take advantage of a crisis. This is true in Japan, it's true in the US, and it's probably true most anywhere.
(To be clear, while Pflugfelder is a great scholar who I really admire, his work is really on the history of sexuality in Japan. His book "Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950" is fascinating and is probably the best source in English about the history of homosexuality in Japan, but he's not exactly the person I would go to about this kind of a question. Going to him because he's an "expert on Japanese culture" would be like asking Judith Butler or Michel Foucault about looting in a western country because they're "experts on western culture.")
An NPR story by Jason Beaubien this morning mentioned looting in the earthquake- and tsunami-affected areas of Japan.
With regard to your reader who wrote, "If they hoarded, others would go without," please see this. Again, these simplistic cultural stereotypes really do nothing to enlighten us, and meanwhile provide fodder for racists.
I have to disagree with the readers you quote here. I work for a local government in Japan, and I can say that a lot of facts as given are wrong.
The first reader you quote refers to an "official family record." I believe what this reader is referring to is koseki, which means "household register." These are not registered with the police; they are registered with municipalities. (Also, no municipalities in Japan have their own police. Police in Japan are run by the prefectural governments.) The only thing that koseki have on them is vital records: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, name changes, etc; they do not include criminal records. Also, if your sister got divorced, this would not appear on your koseki because the minute she got married, she would have been removed from your parent's koseki and been put in a new koseki with her husband. If she got divorced, she would be put in a new koseki belonging to no one but her and any children she got parental rights to. (I should note, this system is a barrier to mutual custody in Japan because children must be put in one household or the other on the koseki system.)
As for the claim that the information on a koseki might affect whether or not a university would admit an applicant, I cannot really comment beyond saying that I find this claim high suspect. I believe that exam results and the high school you attended probably play far bigger roles.
As for the claim by Gregory Pflugfelder, I can think of a few words that come close to looting: 泥棒 dorobō "robber", 強盗 gōtō "robbery", 略奪 ryakudatsu "looting". The "they-don't-have-a-word-for-that" argument is best avoided (see here) because the non-existence claim is almost always wrong, and even if it were true, the link between that linguistic fact and how society behaves is extremely tenuous.
By the way, my wife tells me that there were many cases of rape in the aftermath of the Kōbe earthquake in 1995 (see here). Hopefully, nothing like that will happen after this earthquake.
As far as my Japanese bona fides: I majored in Japanese language and culture in college, studied abroad in Tokyo, and worked in Japan for several years before coming back to go to law school in DC. My wife, who I met while studying abroad, is Japanese, and her family lives in Tokyo now. (I should also mention that they all were in Kobe during the catastrophic 1995 earthquake.) I would like to say at the outset that I don't subscribe to a view of Japan being somehow culturally unique, as any salient characteristic can likely find its analogue in our own due to the essentiality of human nature writ large; that being said, within this possible range, there are clearly certain characteristics that are more pronounced in Japanese culture than our own.
First, I'd agree with commentary about the Japanese people being by historical necessity somewhat resigned to natural disasters and thus culturally more resilient when they strike. When I talk to my friends and family in Japan today about their situations, they all used the same expression, "Shikata ga nai," (仕方がない, "it can't be helped") that a reporter from the Atlantic reported Japanese saying back in 1926 in the Atlantic Monthly article while covering the terrible 1926 Tokyo earthquake. Just as he wrote then, it is "almost the Japanese national motto." When I first learned this expression in my first year of Japanese class, I immediately was attracted to the stoic philosophy it embodies; somethings are simply beyond our control, and we can only find strength to suffer through them.
That leads to another concept in Japanese culture of gaman (我慢, loosely, "endurance" or "perseverance"), of putting up with something unpleasant without complaint. Being known as gamandzuyoi (我慢強い, a compound of gaman and tsuyoi, the word for "strong", meaning having a high capacity for this endurance) is highly valued. The common response I hear or read from Japanese people across the country is in this vein of gaman; each person feels a duty to struggle on, and that they don't really have the right to complain, since someone else inevitably must have it worse. People in Tokyo certainly are not complaining about the relative inconvenience of rolling blackouts and food shortages in the light of more serious disasters in Sendai, but even the people of Sendai feel their situation is not as serious as others within the same area or near Fukushima.
This I think explains why people are less apt to loot out of panic or fear of what has happened or what is to come. But I think there is also a clear cultural explanation of why people would not loot generally: the strong group mentality in Japanese society both fosters solidarity and instills fear of incurring shame.
The very word in Japanese used to mean "human being" in Japanese, ningen, is written with two characters (人間) that mean "person" and "between" respectively, giving the word the loose meaning of "between people." A person is what lies between others; more directly, a person is defined by their relationships to others. Traditionally, this would be the Confucian relationships between parents and children, adults and rulers etc. Now, it would encompass the family, friends, classmates at school, or coworkers. One basically is identified through these groups (an average person introducing themselves would literally identify him or herself this way: Takeshi who works at Mitsubishi would introduce himself as "Mitsubishi's Takeshi"). Obviously the largest of these groups would be "Japanese people" as a whole.