Kind correspondent Mart sent me a link (to which I make this shamefully late reply...) to commentary by director Alex Cox (Repo Man) on the topic of Kurosawa. Under the heading "More tired clichés about Japan":
It's a very brief bit, so thankfully there's not too much goofiness in there by volume. But there is that ever-popular quoting of the oh-so-tired proverb, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down". Sigh.
Speaking to the director, or to any of the innumerable quoters of that "nail" proverb:
Look. It is an actual proverb, and it does indeed convey an admonition to go with the flow and not stand out. No argument there. And if one wants to argue that such sentiment is more prevalent or more onerous in Japan than in "the West", I have no doubt that plenty of points and plenty of supporters can be brought in to buttress the argument.
I only want to ask the world to stop reading so much into the existence of proverbs and expressions. "Well, proverbs give us an insight into the thinking of a people..." Not really, I say. That's a common claim, but a poorly supported one. First, how often are such "revealing" expressions actually unique? " 'The nail that sticks out' is so contrary to 'Western' thought", I've heard more times than I could ever count – yet, don't "Westerners" say the exact same thing? "Don't rock the boat." "Don't make waves." "Keep your head down". Over in Australia, people speak of the "tall poppy syndrome" – that is, it's the stand-out poppy that gets its head lopped off. (Hmm, sounds familiar...)
In addition, people happily sling contradicting proverbs and expressions. "Haste makes waste" and "Look before you leap", we hear – along with "He who hesitates is lost". "Many hands make light work", yet "Too many cooks spoil the broth". "The squeaking wheel gets the grease" versus "Silence is golden". On and on.
There's nothing odd about that. Different expressions are created and used by different people at different times, in response to an infinite number of different circumstances and desires. So it goes with us humans. As much fun as it may be to try mapping infinitely varied human behavior to a few trite expressions, in the end we act how we act, proverbs be damned.
That goes for "the Japanese", too. Quote "The nail..." all you want, but while you're doing that, plenty of Japanese are keeping busy purposely standing out. There's no shortage here of avant-garde artists, punk rockers, controversial authors, game-changing business leaders, you name it. Loud right-wingers pushing for more nationism in schools, and bold teachers stoutly defying the same. Forthright activists. Zany costumed celebrities. You get the idea.
In fact, I'd say Japan's a pretty great place to "stick out". Want to be a flamboyantly open transvestite? From all appearances, the likely outcome is that you'll become a handsomely compensated TV star. Or are you more of a long-haired, heavy metal-loving maverick politician and hobbyist Elvis impersonator? Watch out; Japan might make you Prime Minister.
In closing, let me also add that there are countless people in Japan who don't live splashy lives and who may very well fit the description of non-boat-rocking, non-wave-making, head-down, hammer-avoiding, short poppies. (Uh, something like that.) That's to be expected from our species. And, of course, there are times and places and situations in which these people, and even their heads-up splashy neighbors, make the wrong waves and get knocked by that hammer. Mindless conformity is a real phenomenon.
You can even experience it yourself. Try taking a same-sex date to a school prom in the US. Wham goes the hammer. Try taking an upper-caste job as a lower-caste person in parts of India. Wham. Try criticizing the government in any dictatorship. Wham. (That's the cell door slamming.) Try coming out as an atheist in fundamentalist corners of the Middle East. Wham. Wham. Wham. (Those are real rocks, not a figurative hammer.)
I ramble. In summary: Yes, there's groupism in Japan. There's anti-individuality groupism everywhere. The groupism may even be relatively strong in Japan. But please don't tell me there's any binary "groupism vs individualism" dichotomy between Japan and "the West". Any difference is one of degree, not kind.
And while you can no doubt make arguments for the size of that degree, please do so using evidence. Proverbs just don't mean much, okay?
Oh, a final item. I think I've asked this before, but here's a question for anyone who's lived in Japan:
Have you ever actually heard the proverb "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" used in the wild? That is, actually used naturally by one Japanese speaker to another, for its intended admonishing purpose?
I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't get used that way, but I've never heard it! The only times I've ever heard the proverb uttered is in pedagogic explanations of "Japanese mentality". I suspect the proverb has little actual currency outside being invoked to support its own existence...
Interesting stuff. Anyway, thank you, Mart, for the pointer!