Monday, July 31, 2017

Japan Myths # 1 - The Standing Nail & The Hammer

All Japanese and most foreigners living here have heard the proverb / Japanese truism, "The nail that stands up gets hammered down." This is supposed to be a Japanese social virtue, a source of strength and national pride. Indeed, the source of its resonance is its applicability, its aptness as a metaphor for how Japanese society treats its members.

There are basically three outcomes for the 'nails' who get pounded into the Japanese social superstructure.

First, just as in carpentry there are nails that are disfigured or bent and are thus thrown away as unusable. The mentally and physically handicapped correspond to this category, and their alienation and separation from mainstream Japanese social life are by-products of this thinking.

Second, those that can take the incessant pounding of a vertical society disappear into the structure. They hold it up from the inside, and the cost is their invisibility, their estrangement from friends and family until retirement. The untold lives of public servants and salarymen and women who made Japan Inc. an economic powerhouse are in this category.

Last, there are nails that cannot take pounding, either because they were made with some flaw, or the pressure on them was unbalanced or excessive. Those 'flawed' nails are in actuality individuals not constructed to withstand pressure, such as the disparaged millennials who increasingly reject such traditional maxims by not participating in consumer society through kurumabanare (refusal to buy status symbols such as a car) or becoming soshokukei (vegetable eating, i.e. unambitious). On the other hand, those broken by the excessive force are the victims of power harassment or unscrupulous 'black' industries, and are a symptom of the neoliberal government rollback from worker protection and care for individuals that is a trend in modern Japan.

The problem with this style of metaphorical thinking is that it has very little to do with reality. People are not nails, they should not be discarded, rendered invisible, or broken down. Just as Donald Trump junior's reduction of Muslim immigrants to a bowl of M&M's with one poisoned candy in it was ridiculed and rejected, so too do the preconceptions of this proverb need rethinking.

To be sure, Japan's seemingly superior service rests upon this maxim. Workers are pounded into shape for working, and the old Japanese TV show Ai no bimbo no day sakusen showed exactly the Gordon Ramsey-esque ridicule and verbal abuse that was par for the course in Japanese restaurant industry training. Yet the epidemic of karoushi, stress, and depression also owes a lot to thinking like this. It justifies pressure and abuse, which should have no place in a modern democratic society. Otsuka (2017) also relates how entrepreneurs are silenced by academics and other institutionally sanctioned voices, and thus shows how obeying this maxim conversely hobbles creativity and ingenuity in Japan.

The hammered nail proverb is an iinarawashii (言い習わし), or literally a saying to be learned from. The question now is whether the right lessons are being learned from it. If only the old lesson of abuse acceptance stemming from unequal power relations in the vertical society is learned, nothing will change, and Japan's workplace problems and millennial disenchantment will only worsen. However, if the lesson that people are not nails, and can hold up society without being crushed by it is emphasized, a kinder, more humane society may emerge.

One hint to a solution is in the etymology of the proverb. The original phrase was not 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down' but instead started with 'The wooden stake.' Indeed, there is a different tradition of carpentry, a local Japanese style that might offer a better metaphor for social building. It involves fitting wood together without nails, perfect joins that last longer. It is reserved for temples and shrines, in other words, for constructing things with universal human values. Western carpentry is thus like Western capitalism, demanding subjects be beaten into the right role to keep the structure together, and the Japanese maxim of hammering nails replicates this perfectly. By rethinking the lesson taken from this and other old Japanese forms of conventional wisdom, new lessons that lead to a healthier and more creative society can emerge.


Otsuka, Masafumi. (2017). "How The Nail That Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down."


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