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"The nail that sticks up gets hammered down"

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!




Hi, Thanks for picking up the link. Sorry for being late to react though ;) I was mostly irate over that clip because it was in direct contradiction to the movie he was discussing. The nail that sticks out in Ikiru does not get hammered down; and the protagonist does not lose. In fact, stating that the protagonist loses is a prime example of not getting it in the same way as the civil servants in the film don't get it. The playground gets created, the people and their children have what they wanted, due to the sacrifice of one man. Sure, it's not a out-and-out win, it's bittersweet, but the entire plot contradicts Cox' cheap cliche-mongering.


I am also not convinced to read much into proverbs in general, especially dated ones.Yet, if you compare the Japanese mentality to the Western European one, there is a very obvious difference in the judgement and value of individualism. Europeans see individualism as an absolute positive with no bad connotations. People who fight for more extreme expressions of individualism are seen as some kind of cool, cultural elite, and are unanimously looked up to.Most Japanese see individualism as something that can be good, but should not be overdone in order to not disturb the harmony. Being a rebel in Japan is not cool when the rebellion reaches deeper than clothing and poses. 

I do think that the above

I do think that the above commentator was too extreme in saying that Westerners think of rebellion as an unconditional good and that all meaningful rebellion in Japan is "uncool." I've also never heard of the "the nail" proverb said in Japanese, only in English. But I do get a sense that the Japanese perceive the U.S. and other countries as having more freedom (for example, "日本は狭い、二つの意味で" or "○は自由の国"). So since the sentiment that "Japan has less freedom than the U.S. and Europe etc." is a shared feeling, I do think that it holds more water than if it was simply a U.S. impression. The impressions on both sides may be exaggereated but I do think it is there in reality to some extent. I think one of the most obvious differences is people's impression of いたずら or どっきり. If someone tried doing in Japan things like what Rémi Gaillard does, they would not be praised so much. Rémi Gaillard's are watched by a number of people in Japan, and many do find him funny of course, but they keep on saying, 日本じゃ無理, and there is a general feeling that if he were a Japanese person, or if it was someone doing it in Japan, they would not find it as funny. And in fact, someone once did try to do something resembling one thing that Rémi did regarding a drive-thru, but only received tons of scorn and comment like もっと逮捕されるべき. So I do think that there is a real difference in mentality here.


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