RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the weeks following the tsunami, there's been a lot of talk about the lack of looting in Japan's devastated coastal cities. That's, of course, quite a contrast to stories of widespread looting in other countries hit by natural disasters.
Japanese speak of their culture of shame, which frowns on committing an act that would disgrace one's family. NPR's John Burnett tried to find out if that really did make a dramatic difference.
JOHN BURNETT: To answer the question if there's been less crime after the Japanese tsunami, my translator, Chie Kobayashi, and I come to the town of Kamaishi. Here the black tide killed at least 600 people, threw an ocean freighter onto the wharf, and blew open thousands of houses and shops, leaving lots of things to steal.
Mr. HIRONORI KODASHIMA (Vice police chief): (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: Hironori Kodashima, the vice police chief, stands in front of the temporary police station in a plain blue work suit, because his uniform was washed away.
There have been media reports of limited looting elsewhere in the tsunami's aftermath - an ATM pried open, gas siphoned from disabled vehicles, stolen food, water and beer. What's the assistant police chief heard?
Mr. KODASHIMA; (Through translator) Yes. We have some reports, confirmed reports, that some money or the bicycles stolen from the house or at the shops. And we confirmed it's not washed away by tsunami, but somebody else did it. But the number is less than 10 so far.
BURNETT: So that's fewer than 10 reports in a city that was home to 40,000 people.
While we're interviewing him, a woman walks into the police station holding a soggy wallet. It has the equivalent of $150 in it. I ask a policewoman if this is common.
Unidentified Woman #1: Actually we get a lot, because lots of wallets are washed away so a lot of them are found.
BURNETT: We want to find out if local people have heard about burglaries after the tsunami. I still remember some of the Katrina survivors in New Orleans who hauled off liquor bottles, Nike sneakers and flat-screen TVs.
Over the course of the day, about half of the 15 people we talk to in Kamaishi say they haven't heard of any looting. And the other half says something like this...
Unidentified Woman #2: (Japanese language spoken)
Ms. CHIE KOBAYASHI (Through Translator): She heard about the thief in this area. She heard many, many houses and shops were broken into.
BURNETT: But what about her house? Or her...
Ms. KOBAYASHI: (Japanese language spoken)
Unidentified Woman #2: (Japanese language spoken)
Ms. KOBAYASHI: They're all right.
BURNETT: They're okay?
Ms. KOBAYASHI: They're okay.
BURNETT: Thank you.
It always happens to somebody else, it never happens to them.
Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah.
BURNETT: Someone tells us they heard there was lots of stealing in the seaside village of Unosumai, which is 10 minutes away. So we go there. The scene is even worse than Kiamichi - utter obliteration. The contents of happy houses litter the gray sand: a broken teacup, a futon, a Mahjong tile, a statue of a smiling Buddha.
(Soundbite of an announcement)
BURNETT: The only sound in this wasteland is a ghostly announcement by the local government for free hot baths.
And what about thievery? It's the same story. People have heard vaguely about burglars, but no one has any firsthand knowledge. The only actual sighting we have comes from the translator, Chie. She says she saw two young men carry some toilet paper and other items out of a shattered drugstore when she was here about a week ago.
By the end of the day, the only concrete crime report we encounter is this one.
Mr. TETSUHIKO KIKUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: A 68-year-old dry cleaner named Tetsuhiko Kikuchi says on the day after the tsunami, someone stole some food from his apartment. A few days later, he came to check on his place and found some valuables missing.
Mr. KIKUCHI: (Japanese language spoken)
Ms. KOBAYASHI: The necklaces and the watches, all the small stuff.
BURNETT: But people are clearly worried. They're patrolling their own neighborhoods. There's a rumor circulating that the thieves are foreigners, Gaikokujin.
Pernicious rumors in the aftermath of great disasters in this country have a historic precedent. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, rumors that foreigners were poisoning wells and committing arson and robbery led to the mass murders of Koreans by Japanese mobs.
(Soundbite of conversations)
BURNETT: If anybody is going to know if there're thieves about, it's the Shobodan, the ubiquitous blue-jacketed volunteer firemen who patrol the city every night. Their chief is Matsuo Wada, a stern 67-year-old retired city councilman.
Mr. MATSUO WADA (Fireman/Chief of Neighborhood Patrol): (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: No, he says, they haven't encountered a single looter. Kamaishi is a very safe city. We have received information that there are foreigners walking around committing crimes.
He raises his eyebrows skeptically.
Mr. WADA: (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: I cannot tell you if it's true or not.
John Burnett, NPR News, in northeastern Japan.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.