But there have been no such scenes reported in Japan, five days after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, which swept several northern towns off the map. The country seems to be clinging together socially, without the kind of unhelpful chaos that's come to color such disasters elsewhere.
John Swenson-Wright, a Japan expert at Chatham House think tank, believes the answer has to do with Japanese culture.
"There's a general sense of social responsibility that's very fundamental to Japan. Part of that is self-regulation on the part of individuals, part of it is a society in which people are very conscious of their reputations in the eyes of their neighbors and colleagues," Swenson-Wright told AOL News today. "They're reluctant to do anything that would invite criticism."
Another factor is Japanese people's deep-rooted sense of honor, embodied in the words today of their emperor, who rarely speaks publicly and stays out of .
"I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times," Japanese Emperor Akihito said today. Local TV stations cut away from quake and tsunami coverage to broadcast the emperor's speech.
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"I am deeply hurt by the grievous situation in the affected areas," the emperor said. "The number of deceased and missing increases by the day. We cannot know how many victims there will be."
But such brotherly love in the face of disaster hasn't always been the case in Japan.
In 1923, what came to be known as the Great Kanto earthquake -- a 7.9-magnitude tremor -- killed more than 100,000 Japanese, devastating Tokyo and the port city of Yokohama. Afterward, rumors swirled about the actual amount of destruction, and ethnic minorities, especially Koreans, bizarrely became scapegoats for the disaster.
One rumor that swept Tokyo was that Koreans were to blame for looting, robbery and arson after the quake. Vigilante mobs began stalking Koreans across Japan, in many cases beating them dead in broad daylight. Hundreds of Japanese were later charged with murder.
"The population at the time embarked on an odious massacre in which tens of thousands of Koreans were butchered," Swenson-Wright said of the 1923 quake and its aftermath. "Nothing like that is going to happen in this current crisis, but there is a kind of extreme dimension to a society that's quite conformist and has a very profound sense of who is part of the society and who is deemed not.
"It's precisely those bonds of close kinship and connection between people that helps explain why people have not taken advantage of the situation [for ill purposes]," Swenson-Wright said. "Also, simply the scale of this event has traumatized people -- the shock of seeing entire communities wiped out overnight."
"In the U.S. we can't even win an or NFL championship without violence breaking out," James E. Bodenheimer wrote in a column Tuesday for North Carolina's Gaston Gazette newspaper. "What is the secret that the Japanese hold? Is it honor -- 'saving face'? Is it respect -- 'honor your elders'?
"I, personally, wish to learn from the Japanese people's reactions," Bodenheimer wrote. "I am heartbroken for them. ... Yet fortified by them. Go figure."