"There is no question the Japanese respond well to this kind of catastrophe, but even if it looks remarkable from the outside, it's not new," said Carol Gluck, a professor of modern Japanese history at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. "It's not cultural or religious -- it is a historically created social morality based on a response to the community and social order."
"It's not that the Japanese are naturally passive and obedient," she said. "There is a historically created social value to it. People uphold it. It works. Someone leaves something in the subway and they get it back. When you find something you give it to the lost and found."
"In this catastrophe, it's striking when compared to Western countries. We kind of expect looting," Gluck said. "It happens in good and bad times, probably from the pay-off from seeing that operate."
Social models like these take a long time to develop, according to Gluck, and they are partly rooted in the economics of cooperative rice agriculture and the influences of Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that emphasizes a social morality and "the way one treats his fellow man."
Christianity, for example, puts a far greater emphasis on "transcendental faith" and man's relation to God.
"It's a piece of the larger picture if you think of the self in society," she said.
The societal emphasis also carries over into the Japanese corporate world.
"Westerners often comment, why is it [Japanese] executives of large corporations don't live much better or get 100 times more remuneration than those who work for them?" Gluck said. "A kind of leveling goes with this."
The flip side of that sense of order is the discomfort with those who are not fully Japanese. More ethnically homogenous than American society, Japan is less tolerant of outsiders, foreign immigrants and mixed-race marriages and their children.
"It's based on values that are very exclusive," she said.
"There is an in group and an out group and one reason society works the way it does is the group takes care of one another and the out group is on the outs," Gluck said. "It can even be the next village. There is a rejection of people outside the circle."
Eric Stephanus, an American who worked as an insurance marketing manager and lived in Japan for a decade in the 1980s, said that "conformity is valued above all else."
"Japan was a feudal society until the 19th century with very stratified classes and responsibilities, with very strict consequences if you stepped out of line," he said.
"Talking socially, that's why there is bullying," said Stephanus, 60, who now lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. "Children who are not fully Japanese can't go to schools because they are bullied. They look a little different."
The Japanese have a great respect and trust in authority.
"One aspect is to conform to your peers and realize what place in society you are in," he said. "It's incomprehensible not to obey an order that someone above you gave you -- like a policeman or a bureaucrat. There is no tradition of individual rights or looking at things critically. You are part of the herd. ... It absolutely works wonderfully and is effective for social control."
But the Japanese seem fatalistic when tragedy strikes.
Stephanus said he was "stunned" by a photo in Sendai after the earthquake.