Stephanus said he was "stunned" by a photo in Sendai after the earthquake.
"A bus stop was crushed by one of the buildings and I looked at the people in the street -- they were shopping and got their purses and were smiling," he said. "It's not that surprising. The Japanese always take a morbid fascination in disasters."
He said people took a "ghoulish interest" in color newspaper photos when Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed into two mountain ridges in 1985. The deadliest single aircraft accident in history, it killed 505.
Stephanus doesn't discount the "real traumas" that affect Asian societies.
"Every family has a story," he said. "But they have a strange fatalism. Everyone has a fate and there is no sense of fighting about it."
Even though the Japanese are not religious, their belief system may be anchored in tenets of Buddhism -- souls are recycled from one life to the next.
But as the threat of a nuclear meltdown increases, the patience of the Japanese will be tested.
"The resilience of the Japanese has limits," said William Bodiford, a specialist in Japanese religions from UCLA, who is currently on sabbatical in Japan. "If the authorities cannot respond effectively, then the bonds of trust that sustain this resiliency could break."
Few places on earth have suffered the magnitude of death than Japan. In 1945 during World War II, American pilots dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The acute affects killed up to 250,000 civilians combined in both blasts, but many more were maimed or died slow deaths from burns and radiation sickness.
"Few other places in the world have had the accumulation of history as Japan," said Fred Bemak, professor of psychology at George Mason University who has experience in cross-cultural counseling in Asia. He founded the group Counselors Without Borders, which responds to international disasters.
"When you top that with the earthquake in Kobe, there has been historical trauma through the generations and experiences in very severe and dramatic loss and death," Bemak said. "There's a whole intergenerational psychology of resilience."
The world had not yet seen the public face of grief that Bemak said will emerge when the Japanese have ceremonials for the thousands of dead.
"Japan is the most prepared country in the world and that's no accident," he said. "It's part of the national proof -- we are in shape to handle this."
Part of the much-described Asian culture of "saving face" is coping, according to Bemak.
"Expression of grief is culturally driven. Right now there are no burials going on because there is too much chaos. It's, how can I find water and I need food for my mother or my child. It's the survival instinct," he said. "The deep pain and grief come after, when the ceremonial mourning begins."
ABC's Jay Shaylor contributed to this report from Tokyo.