Tag Archives: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down

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.

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