Quoted: Holly on Interpretation of Culture


OK, I have a bunch of stuff I want to say about the infamous Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” that gives this post its title. And it is infamous ― it’s one of those sayings that has spread throughout the English-speaking world as a way of characterizing Japanese culture. I’m curious about your partner’s interpretation, and what I understood him to mean was that if any of those Asian-American kids were to try to survive socially alone, they would be like a lone nail standing out, a target for the hammer of white privilege without support of other “nails.” In a group, they’re safer ― maybe not from the hammer, but at least maybe it’s harder to get bashed down when you are amidst support and those like you.

That’s actually a nice and positive spin on that saying ― valuable, even, in that you were help to connect it with the need for community support from people of shared experience, and share your thoughts in this post. At the same time… it’s very radically different from my own experience of that saying, which (in English) has been used for decades to other (and denigrate, subtly) Japan as a culture of conformity and group-think where being different or special is punished. If you google “the nail that sticks up” you will see plenty of examples of English-speaking “discussion about Japan” that basically amount to that. Most of the people that talk about this saying are not Japanese ― most of them are probably white. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a whole discourse about this “emblematic, characteristic of Japan” proverb that’s been foisted on Japan, in addition to and separate from what it actually originally meant. I understand that your partner had a different spin (and I actually kind of like it) but for personal as well as political reasons ― since this “saying” and associated ideas had a big impact on me culturally, racially, individaully ― I feel like it’s important to acknowledge those bigger contexts and history.

So, it’s a complicated subject and I decided to call an expert ― my mother, who has written on the topic in both languages and never gets tired of railing against American scholars and journalists who can’t stop essentializing Japan and using it as a bizzare opposite mirror to rationalize the Way That America Is. I talked to her for about an hour just now, as a sanity check because I know too many different, conflicting things about this saying. But she basically summed it up: “Japan ‘experts’ here use it to say that Japan is a conformist society, unlike America which is all about individualism and merit.”

What too many American ‘experts’ think this means
: Don’t be different. Conform to the ways of the group, don’t stick out. Otherwise you will be crushed, and rightfully so. This is the way of Japanese society.

This is actually what I was taught it meant ― how half of my cultural background was presented to me ― by white people, including members of my own family. When my mother caught wind of this, she just told me that they didn’t understand what it really meant, but left it at that. She has always despaired of raising me and my sister in a way that would allow us to be anything but “Americans,” here in this soil and culture. She didn’t really try to explain it all to me until decades later, when I was reading more about it and she was writing more about it.

There are 988,000 hits in Google for “the nail that sticks.” The original proverb was actually “the stake that sticks up” because there were no nails in Japan before the iron ships came. If you search on the actual Japanese phrases, 出る杭は打たれる or 出る釘は打たれる ― you get less than half the results. This is partly because it’s become magnified, exaggerated, focused on, and partly because the expression has gone out of vogue in Japan (maybe especially online…) It’s associated with an “old way of thinking” and is something a stern schoolteacher or group-minded boss would say.

What I understand it really means in Japan, in my limited half-breed way: You should not emphasize your own individual excellence or difference over group harmony (wa, 和) to avoid resentment and dissension. Think about a sports team with a star player, one whose talent and skills stands out over everyone else. If that player were always trying to be the one to take the shot at basket, to score the goal, even if they statistically have the greatest likelihood of success, teamwork and the group dynamic suffers. The individual may be outstanding, but the group suffers. This is what’s trying to be expressed.

In some ways it’s similar to the concept of “hubris,” but without the divine element. There’s actually a pretty good discussion here, with examples from different cultures. The “tall poppy” of New Zealand, the “high trees catch much wind” or “sticking your head above the mowing field” in Dutch, or “if you move you won’t be in the picture” in Spanish.

All of these are a little different, of course. But I feel like none has been called out as an “essential descriptor” of a culture, at least in the US, as the Japanese example. And I believe that’s because of the “weird mirror” dynamic.

Some of these carry more of a “warning” dynamic ― hey be careful, you’re a target! And it can be used in Japanese that way too, which is maybe more popular now that the “prioritize the group above trumpeting your own merit” which is sort of an old fuddy-duddy thing. However, my mother wants me to say that in order to really understand what it means and the importance of this saying, you also need to grasp what wa (和, harmony) means in Japan (white guy tries to explain here) and also ’sekken’ (sp?) a word I don’t know. She claims that some article she wrote about this might be online some time soon, but doesn’t know how to find it, because she gets irritated with Google.

Atlasien and little mixed girl also commented on the dynamics around this proverb recently over at Racialicious on a post about the trans community in Japan, and the stereotypes of conformity.

If you read this long comment about hammering, thank you. It’s a bit of a tangent, but since it’s the metaphor of the post and important to me, I thought I should write it. It’s also really related ― for me at least ― to the kinds of white/POC/mixed-race dynamics that bint talks about. The simple “conformist” interpretation of the saying was taught to me by hegemonic American (i.e. white-centric) culture and white relatives as what the OTHER culture I was part of would do to me for being different. Because I was always different, the white side of my family positions itself as being very “different” and me more than the rest of them for being queer and trans, even when I was tiny. The idea was that although “oh no we wouldn’t want to say Japan is BAD per se,” special people would be taken care of properly in this country. (Yeah, right.) This really influenced my own relationship to Japanese culture when I went to live there at the age of 11, which is when I was feeling at a new peak of intense difference around race and gender especially, and like nobody could understand me. (Oh, adolescence.) So it’s taken me a long time to learn more nuanced lessons about it.

—”The Hammering,” Feministe