Law, Harmony and the Art of Garbage Disposal

Chris Doyle on East Asian political philosophy.

During my student exchange in Osaka, Japan, my International Negotiations teacher told us of a survey he conducted with some Japanese students. An anonymous poll, the question was simple: “Have you committed a crime within the past 12 months?” Given Japan’s extraordinarily low crime rate, he didn’t expect many “yes” answers. To his surprise, he found that 70% of his students admitted to recently committing a crime. Curious to find out exactly what delinquent activities his pupils were involved in, he changed the survey the next year, and sought exactly what crime they committed. The most common answer: incorrect garbage disposal. I’m not talking about littering here, these students considered themselves criminals simply because they put a plastic thing in a non-plastic bin (There are typically five kinds of bins in Japan: burnable, plastic, PET, cans and glass).

So why is the topic of garbage disposal featuring in a politics magazine? This example has a lot to do with the major differences between Western and East Asian societies when dealing with issues of law, order and governance. In my year of studying and travelling in Asia, I am coming to the conclusion that what students learn in first-year politics about individual freedom and its protection by the state is not perfectly applicable to East Asian culture. Rather than a simple balance of one person’s freedom and another (e.g. the right to race cars vs. the right to a certain degree of safety on the road), another dimension seems to come into play. I propose that to instead of applying the paradigm of ‘freedom vs. freedom’ universally in many non-Western cultures, a concept of ‘freedom vs. harmony’ would be more appropriate, and can be a useful tool in analysing order within any given community.

While I’m sure you have a good grasp on the general concept of harmony, I will explain it within the context of societal order. While Western thinkers like Rousseau promote the idea of obeying law as a means of protecting individual freedoms from the threats of others (Social Contract), the idea of harmony is founded within a less adversarial context. In societies like Japan, rather than relying on the law to keep people’s desire in check with each other, things tend to be dealt with in an extra-judicial manner, based on mutual understanding. As a result, there are many activities that are legal, or technically illegal and not enforced, yet nobody seems to do them. For example, there are no laws against drinking in public, yet generally, nobody drinks so much as a can of Coke while walking, let alone have a rowdy drinking session in the local park (except exchange students; this causes issues). What this means is that social activity occurs relatively unimpeded and disputes are resolved with minimal intervention by outsiders (law enforcement). This is visibly observable in the activities of Japanese policemen, who seem to spend the most of their time doing paperwork and giving directions to lost people.

So in the harmony paradigm, what brings people to surrender their freedoms when not even the law demands it? You could refer to the East Asian response to the need for social order as Social Contract 2.0. As well as obeying the state, citizens also have an unwavering obedience to the unspoken rules of society (known in Japanese as anmoku). Not talking loudly at night, commuters refraining from listening to music so loudly the whole train can hear it, waiting for the green man at pedestrian crossings no matter how deserted the streets are- these are things people just do. It is done on the premise that it helps create an environment that everybody wants to live in. The focus on the well-being of the community, as opposed to just one’s self, is perhaps one of the greatest divides between Eastern and Western mindsets.

Let us come back the story about incorrect garbage disposal. While this ‘crime’ is by no means worth reporting to the police, it would bring the offender shame and embarrassment if the local community found out. Sometimes this does happen (again, I have to call exchange students like myself out), and the community member who sees the unsorted rubbish tends to then feel responsible to make it right. While seemingly trivial, selfish and disruptive acts like this are perceived as an attack on the harmony of wider society, and can result in damaged reputation and ostracism. While Westerners often refrain from immoral acts due to an internal guilty conscience, members of many East Asian societies refrain more from fear of being found out and word spreading of the offence. I have been told that it is almost no chance of being confronted by the law in Japan for riding a train without a ticket. However, if caught, the station attendant would politely ask you to buy a new ticket, and any normal Japanese person would immediately do so out of shame.

What can be learned from the ‘freedom vs. harmony’ model? Firstly, it draws attention away from the state when dealing with social order. While it would be a herculean task to write a law to govern every facet of communal life, it is much more efficient to govern the majority of these things with socially enforced norms. The truth is, all human societies do this already, but political and legal scholars often overlook this factor, or reduce it to more mechanical terms such as ‘verbal contract’.

Also, it is possible to look at international politics through this new lens. Given that there is no governing body at the interstate level, it can be said that states seek to create a ‘community’ in which each member can achieve their aims. While it is often possible for a state to ‘misbehave’ and not suffer dire punishment (e.g. North Korea), the ‘community’ of states acts in a way to ostracise such states and leave them out in the cold in regular interstate activity such as trade agreements. While the case of North Korea is an odd one, as the ‘hermit state’ seems happy to be out on its own, the fear of exclusion influences state behaviour in a positive manner in most cases.

It would be of great benefit if this harmony-based perspective on order becomes more prevalent in political thought. By dealing with the issue of freedom with less of a zero-sum game mindset, it is possible to create environments where people are willing to protect the interests of others, even in the absence of law. While it would be easy to misconceive this idea as naïve assessment of human character, it must be kept in mind that there are indeed factors that discourage acts against the coherence of a group, particularly social pressure. Although an approach of maintaining harmony would by no means qualify the removal of governance and legal framework (i.e. anarchy), the ‘freedom vs. harmony’ perspective does a good job in explaining order in areas where law is ineffective or non-existent.


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