Brainmatters | Theft only occurs in old stories


Last month I visited Japan for the first time. I was expecting to be stuffed into the metro by people wearing white gloves, expected to see robots walking the streets, and cool fashionable youngsters with dyed hair as in computer games. None of that, of course. The greatest differences are far more subtle, though much more drastic as well.

I went for lunch with a Japanese colleague in a MUJI shop. He put his laptop bag on a chair and walked along with me to the counter to order his food. I took my backpack, and after a few minutes I asked him: “Aren’t you afraid that someone might steal your laptop?” He said: “Nothing is ever stolen here”. And he looked at me as if I had asked him why there were no slaves walking around.

Several days later another Japanese colleague confirmed that theft is hardly a problem at all. “Well, in the past things sometimes got stolen, as you can read in old stories”, he said. In the same vein as when we in the Netherlands read about knights and crusades. Or about Neanderthals.

What surprises me is not that the standards concerning theft should differ between countries. I once went on a trip to Brazil for my work, so I bought a travel guide to prepare myself. It contained a detailed list stating what to do when you get robbed. The best tip was to make sure you always have cash on you. It appears that Brazilian muggers tend to get really angry when they take the trouble to rob you, and you have no money on you.

What does surprise me is that the other extreme, a society where theft is almost non-existent, it not only theoretically possible, but practically feasible too. Parks full of bags that are not being watched by any of the parents and children playing football. Although the odd item is stolen occasionally (in Japanese statistics ‘Women’s clothing’ is a category, meaning ladies’ knickers) the phenomenon is rare.

Some things could really be better

I realized that I regarded some of the things in my life as a given. Like the fact that in any society, especially in a big city, there is always a group of people spoiling things for everybody else. Thieves. No sociable people really. Everybody in our society is ranged according to one or other statistic category, and there will always be negative extremes. Still, after my tour of Japan I saw that for certain standards you can simply shift the whole statistic division, so that even very extremely negative people in society no longer display certain kinds of behavior.

While walking my dog I spoke to an old Rotterdam inhabitant, who said that things were similar in Rotterdam during the years after the war. People would not dream of doing anything rotten. After having been back in the Netherlands for two weeks, it is with some wistfulness that I think back to Japan now and then as a modern Dutch city-dweller. And I consider how nothing is a given in our own society. Some things could really be better. If only we knew how.

Daniël Lakens | Assistant Professor of Applied Cognitive Psychology with the Human Technology Interaction division

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