Sunday, March 20, 2011

How we live

When I was growing up and living somewhere in or near the state of trouble, I quickly learned to implicate a friend. My parents wouldn’t kill me if I said this or that incident was the product of peer pressure. A simple lie could shrink a world of hurt into something more manageable.

And so, my parents chose to see me as an easily led, gullible little girl whose friends were all, no matter where we lived, a bad lot.

My report card from school may have said, “Karin is a leader,” but my parents were pretty sure they knew better.

And I could, by the way, blame a friend without getting the friend in trouble. My parents would never tell other parents they were raising a hellion. But I wasn’t really a hellion, just messing with the rules. Most of us in this country spend adolescence cherry picking the laws, mores, and courtesies we’ll choose to follow. At our peril.

Japan astonishes the world. In a time of chaos, they maintain a sense of communal order and incredibly good manners.

There’s no looting, they don't even push and shove. As one correspondent said, no one has to tell them to form a line, they just queue up, naturally.

Take the story of the vending machine.

This week a crowd of hungry, thirsty evacuees found refuge in a school auditorium. In the auditorium, there was a bank of non-functioning but fully stocked vending machines. Not one person rose up to smite the beast. Rather than break the civil law, or law of decorum, they chose hunger and thirst.

A journalist for the Economist who had lived in Japan for years said, essentially, that here in the West, identity is individualism. In Japan, there is no identity outside of society. And there is no society without rules.

Every lifestyle has its danger. Selfless behavior certainly is prettier to witness than selfish behavior, though both have their roots in survival. I can see arguments on both sides. Which is fittest, I don't know.

In times of crisis, sometimes it takes a hero. In Japan, I think a hero would heave a chair through the vending machine glass, liberating the chips and pepsi.

And sometimes, the hero is the village.

In California, when we have our Big One, the hero will be the group of disparate people who, eschewing personal safety, band together to save others. Vending machines won't present a moral dilemma for us. Everything will be on fire.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more!! Btw, got your earthquake kit prepped and ready? Hubby just went on a store run for a couple more essentials to add to the survival gear: TP & Scotch.

  2. Confucianist principles, withstanding history and the most extreme conditions.
    The good of society, on a moral plane, held above the individual, yet, not by some authoritive decree. Perhaps these are individual actions without thought for oneself.
    What's to be learned here, besides the obvious lessons learned of safety and trying to control nature and technology, or the effect one has on the other?

  3. After the earthquake in Japan, I heard several people say, "If this happened here, we'd need machine guns to fight off the brigands who will come after our food."

    You've brought to mind an image from the summer of '66 when I worked at a large insurance company in San Francisco. One day, one of the candy machines upstairs was broken. If you pulled a lever, out came a candy bar. No money needed. A guy who worked near me said ladies were standing at the machines with open pocket books shoveling Snickers and Three Muscateers in as fast as they could pull the levers. My friend got there late and came back with a few packs of Wrigleys.

  4. I often wonder what would happen in my little world of we ended up in a situation like that...I know I wouldn't wait for help or be polite about taking something I needed.

  5. I don't look forward to it. I just hope I've got enough canned goods to share and that I have a choice in the matter.

  6. "enough canned goods to share"??

    What u mean PDP?? Those belong to Boz, your dog. He's gonna need every last can of dog food, so you won't have much say in the matter.

  7. "In Japan, I think a hero would heave a chair through the vending machine glass, liberating the chips and pepsi."

    What a great image. Very cinematic.

  8. I crave those vending machines with all the junk food! We usually only have vending machines for drinks here...although I've spotted some selling nutrition bars. blah.

    Regarding the looting, I think we all need to do what we can to survive in that particular environment...and am grateful that ours did not include looting. I've never looted in my life and I don't think I quite know how.

  9. Kaori: Great line, "I've never looted in my life."

    If someone in Japan did break into a candy machine, would they be considered a hero, or would they be shunned?

    I hope we don't ever have to find out: (1) If we were down to 10 cans of food, and no help in sight, would we share it? (2) Would we give it to our pets?

  10. Kaori's line, "I don't think I quite know how" is greater still.

    Kaori lives in Japan and just recently moved to Tokyo. Visit her blog at

    Camissonia, it was only TP that hadn't occurred to me.

    Bandit, though society is probably our best bet for survival during disasters, I don't foresee good behavior over here.

  11. Although I've never looted before, I think I could probably get the hang of it pretty quickly.


  12. I love your stories of you when you were little...l think I would have liked you back then too!!!

  13. "Sometimes the hero is the village."

  14. i dunno, people who naturally fall in line bother me. Sounds like the military. But then, here in NYC, people can't be bothered to form any kind of line. Rules are for fools is the thinking, I believe...

  15. We were in Florence, Italy lined up to get into a popular restaurant when it opened for dinner.

    Although the tourists had been politely waiting for more than half an hour, when the place actually opened a huge scrum of Italians appeared out of nowhere and just charged the doors.

    The sense of shock on our part quickly disappeared and we joined the crowd at the door, fortunate enough to have made reservations and get in for the first seating!

  16. We went on a Baltic Cruise on an Italian ship...out of several thousand passengers, at least 70% were Italian...they do not understand the concepts of queing up, first come first serve, how to enter and exit an elevator politely!!! It became quite humorous as we were clearly in the minority...we learned how to do it all their way in short order!!!

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. I saw a new sign at the Ralph's express line the other day: "Approximately 15 items or less."

    We're hopeless.

  19. Dear Mister Earl, I really can't say but I'm sure breaking into the
    candy machine would be a group effort, too.

    Someone to keep the children at bay, someone to actually break it open, someone to count the people there and evenly divide the candy...etc. And after everything has settled down they will probably all apologize to the company and offer to compensate the damages and the company will say "no, no, we can't accept that." I'm just assuming here though.

  20. Very nice, Kaori. Maybe we can turn looting into a group project!

  21. Karin - I too have been astounded at the order in the midst of chaos in Japan. The two things that keep playing over in my mind are their willingness to share their 1 cup of rice with our news correspondents, and the fact that in their makeshift shelters, they continue to recycle bottle, cans, etc. We truly can learn so much from them.

    I so enjoyed reading this post.


  22. The individual vs. (or within) society--one of the oldest themes updated nicely. And getting one rebellious girl set beside a seemingly orderly nation, under the shadow of natural disaster . . . pretty damned impressive. I think you're wise to leave the question open-ended. We'll never KNOW which way is better until we're in the midst. And I doubt one answer will fit every circumstance.

  23. Well, I may need to start practicing how to loot after all...

    "Looting Rears Its Head in Japan" [WSJ]

  24. I think YouTube has a how-to video.

  25. A great post! Japan isn't just another country, it's another planet. A planet I like very much!
    Where else can you find vending machines ON THE STREET full of alcohol and NEVER see anybody drinking in public?