The Nail That Sticks Up . . .

If you’ve read much about Japan, then you’ve probably come across the saying “出る釘は打たれる” or, in Inglés, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” People usually use this saying to make a point about Japan, how it’s hard to be different, and that any deviance is met with resistance.

It’s become hard to read a book, essay, or article about Japan without stumbling on this phrase. It’s a saying that’s able to eloquently and succinctly summarize what so many people want to say about Japanese culture.

But at this point has the saying become a sort of truism that doesn’t really say anything at Japan? Have people come to accept “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” as a fact of life in Japan without questioning how accurate it is?

Is Japan All the Same?

The reasoning seems to go that Japan is so homogenous, its people and culture are so similar everywhere in the country that if you stick out in any way, you’ll be persecuted as a result.

Is Japan really so alike across the nation? At a distance, some people might think so, but the closer you look, the more ridiculous that statement becomes. No country is completely the same all throughout, and Japan is no exception.

Photo by Karl Herler

Even though nearly 99% of the population is ethnically Japanese, that’s not really telling the whole story. As we’ve written about before, Japan has varied cultures across the country, including at least eight different languages.

There are pretty marked differences between Japanese populations; the cultures in Tokyo and Osaka are very different, and so are the dialects. Saying that somebody is “Japanese” doesn’t necessarily tell you who they are.

But it’s easy to see why people might think that way. The diversity in Japan is still relatively little compared to other countries (like the US), and there’s lots of examples of people getting “hammered down.”

Getting Hammered Down

Earlier this year, a lot of the news out of Japan was about a child who was bullied to the point of suicide. Even though the kid and his parents reported his bullying to every imaginable authority figure, they sat idly by as the child was tormented daily.

While the child’s bullying and the outrage about the whole incident is another story entirely (you can read more here), it’s representative of the bigger problem of bullying in Japan.

Photo by Rene Passet

At school and to some extent, at the workplace, bullying has become an unfortunately bigger and bigger problem in Japan over the years. Some bullying leads to suicide too, which helps contributes to Japan’s high suicide rate.

Fortunately, people have begun to recognize this issue in Japan and act on it. This year, Japan’s Education Ministry launched its own anti-bullying task force to help curb bullying in schools, which might in turn help bullying in the workplace as well.

Bullying is a big problem in japan, but I’m not entirely sure it can be explained away with one saying. And it’s not as if these kids are even necessarily all that different — it’s a combination of things that lead to bullying.

Use With Caution

There’s some truth in “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” but I also feel like it’s often the literary equivalent of dropping the mic at the end of a speech and walking away.

It’s a very convenient phrase to use, but it can also be pretty damn reductive. Don’t build your view of Japan on sayings alone.

  • Hashinochichi

    or in “Ingles”? really? That’s Spanish not English. :P

  • Mescale

    One thing to consider is that the barrier to learn about Japan is quite high, to really know Japan, you need to learn her language, you need to romance her, like a body pillow, you got to wine her and dine her, build up a rapport over time, and one day, one glorious day she will invite you into a love hotel and show you what she is made of.

    When that day comes, don’t be too disappointed if she is just full of feathers. Also you might get charged extra for the cleanup.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1550596562 Alexa VanDemark

    Interesting. I have heard that there is a certain negative stigma to foreigners in the workplace in Japan, particularly women. Could this be partly related?

  • sillysamurai

    You are right. There are some things that may be universal, but also many individual/regional differences. One small example: the closer you get to Tokyo, the more you see people walking up and down the subway or train station stairs on the “correct” left side. A few hours train ride away and it seems like people walk anywhere on the staircase, ride their bicycles anywhere on the sidewalk, etc.

  • Mandarina

    Have you read Amelie Nothomb’s “Fear and Trembling”? Btw thanks for the article, very interesting =)

  • Mescale

    No.

    This is a stereotype used to simplify a foreign culture.

    Foreign cultures are really hard to explain, a lot of it is to do with human perception and comprehension of their social environment.

    Simply put we all have an idealised model of how people should behave and react, its created from our culture and society.

    In a society with a different culture these models differ in subtle but significant way. In many ways a foreign person may act in a way you expect through your idealised locally driven cultural blueprint for a human, but there may be some subtle ways that they don’t. And so when differences do occur the effect is magnified. And you have culture shock.

    Now Japan really likes to avoid embarrassment, to perhaps an excessive level, apologizing giving excessive respect etc.

    So when some faux pas does occur this is also magnified through the OMG avoid embarrassment at all costs culture. And so this makes something a bigger deal than it should probably be.

    Now in these situations, the way a foreigner reacts maybe is very foreign as well. It is probably expected that you would do your best to reduce the embarrassment, but quite often the way a foreigner reacts is not what is expected which leads to greater culture shock, more embarrassment.

    And so you can see this can lead to an escalation of misunderstandings.

    As if that isn’t enough a Japanese person would probably be blaming themselves for causing all this embarrassment.

    Stress levels rising, suddenly its fight or flight, adrenaline, do we shoot do we retreat?!?!?!?!!?!?!???

    This situation has arisen and its not because Japanese people want everyone to be the same, its just a cultural misunderstanding that can happen in any country.

    but

    Japan is more culturally foreign to westerners leading to more chances for these culture clashes.
    The Language and Script make it hard to access and deal with such things.
    Culturally perhaps Japan isn’t very well designed to deal with these situations.

    As japanese people like to avoid embarrassment they may then try to avoid situations they may get embarrassed, by avoiding foreigners perhaps. Avoiding employing them etc. Avoiding situations out of the ordinary.

    And now i’ve said all this, be aware its all a big generalization, not everyone acts this way, many people like different things, and can deal with embarrassments or risks of dealing with foreigners.

    And just because you are a foreigner doesn’t mean you will cause these problems, because you are culturally sensitives etc. etc.

    In the end the fact is Japan is just culturally different, if people don’t want to understand the difference or work with that difference then they may label it as some easy to explain stereotype.

    Also a fun thing to do is to think of a situation reversed.

    Think if some foreign people came to your country and decided that they would bring their culture and way of acting and keep it, as they like their way better.

    Oh god it sounds like the age old problem with immigrants, coming here stealing our jobs and women, they don’t even learn our language, or respect our culture.

    Oh wait, maybe they are just like I would be if I went to their country, unsure of how to act culturally, unsure in my language skills, afraid of natives due to their attitudes I assume they will have towards me…

    In the end, people are people all over the world, if you be nice and get to know them, you find they’re all cool guys and girls, and you would love to have them as a friend.

    Approach with a positive and enlightened attitude and everything will be fine.

    But if you approach with assumptions and misconceptions, distrust and hatred then things may not go so well.

    Who really is to blame, them or you?

    All I’m saying is PEACE AND LOVE THE WORLD AROUND. ALL WE NEED IS TO BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER AND EVERYTHING ELSE TAKES CARE OF ITSELF.

    \(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ\(^∀^)メ(^∀^)ノ

  • DAVIDPD

    To certain degree there is a lot of truth in this saying. But like most sayings it is not truth. My preferred maxim is “The wind does not break a tree that bends.” Similar in tone, but speaks more to being flexible in difficult situations, as well as going with the flow.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’ve never heard of Fear and Trembling before, sounds interesting.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    No, Inglés is English. Español is Spanish.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I now expect all the other blogs that use the nail phrase to gang up on Tofugu for writing something different about it.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    ¡Sí!

  • orangedude

    I originally learned that phrase to be about China, not Japan….

  • judy

    I’m interested in what you’d say about the differences between Osaka and Tokyo. I passed through Osaka briefly, but I had certain impressions and I am wondering if I was on the right track.

  • Mescale

    Also consider this saying has an exact analogue in English. This isn’t some Japanese only sentiment that we can’t understand, its a sentiment we share because we have the same saying as them.

    The significance of it applying to Japanese culture is one that has been made by foreigners.

    Is it the Japanese who say, “Hey you know when you come here, act the same as all of us, we have a saying about this, dirty gaijin, ‘if a nail sticks out its hammer time!'”?

    No this is some significance that has been attributed to the Japanese culture by a foreigner.

    In truth this should be celebrated as a similarity.

    We too like things to be the same, we don’t like things that are different. As a rule anyway.

    I like a certain amount of homogeneity in my daily life, and maybe I also like to spend some time enforcing that homogeneity through my fascist acts of cleaning, arranging and passive aggression.

    Is it because I live in a country that is completely the same all over?

    No, its because its part of the human condition, in a environment where things are static and safe, I can feel relaxed. And so I spend some time making things ‘the same’ hammering the nails that stick out. And so does everyone.

    So all that this saying means is that Japanese people are just like the rest of us.

    One big pulsating homogenous mass of humans.

  • Kiriain

    английский!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’ve never heard the phrase used to talk about China, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had made its way to Japan from China

  • Mescale

    Also, remember that time you were watching sesame street, and there was a thing about “Lets look for triangles” and it showed a bunch of triangles could be found all around you. And then you thought hey maybe I’ll look around for triangles, and before you knew it you were surrounded by triangles, they were everywhere, they were after you. and you had to destroy them, DESTROY THE TRIANGLES. And you woke up a few week later strapped to a bed with a IV drip of Vallium and taser burns on your soft squishy bits.

    You saw triangles everywhere because you were looking for them, you gave a significance to triangles that allowed you to notice them when they’re there everyday, and you don’t notice them, their significance was only increased by your own decision to make them significant, to turn them into a threat that needed to be dealt with.

    Its the same with feeling that Japan is all about repression of individuality, how it’s hard to be different, and that any deviance is met with resistance. If you feel that way then you’ll look for ways to validate your feelings, “they have this proverb that says the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”, “They all look the same to me anyway” And in a foreign country you’re all alone and different and they’re all the same. AND THE TRIANGLES< THEY"RE WATCHING ME< THEY"RE WAITING TO STRIKE AHAHAHAHAhahahhhAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

    If your attitude is that Japan is X then you will find ways to validate that attitude, because that is the way the human brain works.

    Maybe instead you could say maybe i’ll look for ways that Japan isn’t X, and you’ll be surprised when you find things you never found before.

    Like hey, lets see if we can see any rectangles around us…

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1111oneoneeleveneleventyone

  • HatsuHazama

    OMG, Mescale, you OK? You seem very… active on this post.

    PS.I am now afraid to see Sesame Street.

  • HatsuHazama

    I never thought of Japan as being thaat monotonous every where. Sure, there are lots of office workers, but still.
    Anyway, I believe your (was it yours?) post on festivals would disprove this article. I mean, you did say most of the festivals in that were unique to certain parts of Japan.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Don’t worry, there’s plenty of other shapes around. Why, just look at thi-

    Oh no… Oh man! I totally forgot to bring an octagon! This is embarrassing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dolphinfeather Jackie Jolly

    It’s not only in Japan, there’s always huge stigmas against people and things that are different in any country, even America. There’s also a ton of kids being bullied to literal death in other countries too. I think people just find that in Japan it seems to be even worse to be different because they’re generally zenophobic

  • ジョサイア

    Koichi has many enemies……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Where are the enemies?

  • ジョサイア

    A lot of stuff Japan got from China China got from India it seems.

  • ジョサイア

    Like that nail that just wont go in strait and keeps bending…I throw nails like that away. :/

  • ジョサイア

    O_O oh, so long…

    The world would be like awesome if there was none like haruhi…(Selfish, entitled…)

  • ジョサイア

    испанская!/西班牙的! :D

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    What I have noticed is that recently – esp. among the younger Japanese people – there are some that try so hard to actually stand out.
    It is a fact that Japanese people all look pretty much the same … as in they have all the same hair color and eye color. Even their body proportions are mostly the same, slim features etc.
    It’s so hard to stick out as “something” special.

    I noticed that during summer festivals girls try to put millions of expensive and cute accessories on them to stick out of the “yukata crowd” – but because everybody is doing it, it doesn’t work.
    A lot of my female co-workers used to color their hair in different shades of brown. Just so that they’d stand out a little, but still so that they won’t get into trouble at work.
    But because a lot of young Japanese women are doing that, they don’t stand out.

    If you really want to stand out with your looks, you have to do something extreme.
    But if you do, you will have difficulties finding a proper job here in Japan.

    On the other hand you have us foreigners.
    We don’t spend a lot of money for fancy accessories. We don’t try hard at all.
    And yet we stand out and get all the attention – even if we don’t want it at all.

  • http://twitter.com/Notnato Nate

    Applying the “nail that sticks up” to the bullying situation is pretty ridiculous. Nobody sticks up more than the aggressive bullies, and no one less than the typical target of bullying.

    If you’ve ever taught in schools you know perfectly well that the kids who are ready to stick up, and stand out don’t generally suffer. It’s the weak kids.

    The grand irony of course being that, in my personal experience, US bullies tend to leave the quiet kids alone, and target the weirdos — the nails that stick up.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I, uhh… You know what? I’m just going to leave this here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-race_effect

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Thanks for the link! :)
    I hope you don’t think that I’m of the impression that all Japanese people look the same. Personally I don’t. But they do have a lot of similar features which can be annoying if you want to stand out. That’s what I wanted to say. ^-^;

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    “Also, remember that time you were watching sesame street, and there was a
    thing about ‘Lets look for triangles’ and it showed a bunch of
    triangles could be found all around you.”

    Not the same way you remember it anyway.

    ΔΔΔ

  • Mescale

    Yes, they are.

  • sknielson

    After living in Japan for almost 2 years and hearing many paranoid rants from some of my other ex-pat friends about how they are constantly being judged or subtly put down by Japanese people, I definitely agree that they looked for evidence to support their notions. Maybe I’m naive, but I haven’t reached this point of the triangles closing in on me, and I feel sad for those that do since it clouds their whole experience here, and no doubt leaves a bad taste for this country once they return home.

  • Rashmi

    I don’t think this particular expression could have originated in India. That’s an awful lot of nails that would have to be hammered down, and not enough hammers…

  • http://easteban.tumblr.com/ Esteban

    That book is amazing, Hashi… you ought to read it O_O (crazy staring).

  • Kk

    What does the story about bullying have to do with this phrase ? It seems so random.

  • ジョサイア

    What?..Am I lacking in context here…

  • ジョサイア

    …They used psychokinesis! :D

  • http://twitter.com/bomblol rick

    theres something to be said for not making blanket statements about cultures, obviously, but there also is something wrong with going to such great lengths to shut down a pretty valid cultural criticism. clearly everyone using a site like tofugu appreciates japanese culture in a multitude of ways, but it doesn’t mean we have to be blind to any flaws, just like good citizens of any country are not blind to their own nations’ flaws.

  • Mescale

    Its not a valid cultural criticism when its made from a position of ignorance.

    My point is that Japanese culture is hard to access because of the language barrier and the fact that is is so culturally different.

    Many people who make claims about Japan have no right to do so due to their ignorance of the facts, that and generally nobody having the right to judge another culture, who in the intercourse has the right to claim a culture is more or less something or other, no one, thats pure intercoursing ego.

    I think that is one of the things that Japanese people can find annoying about some foreigners, their will to judge and think they know better.

    Your comment is a rather poor one all you’ve done is imply I am somehow being a fascist child born out of wedlock, but you’ve added nothing to the conversation.

    So come at me, give me facts and proofs that show that The nail that sticks out gets hammered down is a valid way to describe Japanese people and that they have an entirely homogenized culture.

    I fully expect you to reply with some lame ass comment and a link to wikipedia, this is the internet after all. And clearly you can’t stand it when there is someone who holds different ideas to you.

    As I see it we stand like this.

    I say, don’t judge people based on ignorance and a single stereotype.

    And you say.

    Don’t listen to him, stereotypes are a valid way to marginalise and de-humanise cultures and we should listen to them as valid critiques of societies based on our own judgements whether it is our place to judge them or otherwise.

    Lets let people judge which of us is the biggest infertile child of a horse and a donkey, and if it is me then thats fine because I already know, if its you, then thats too bad because clearly you will never be able to look beyond your ego, think about yourself, and become a better person.

  • http://twitter.com/bomblol rick

    take a xanax

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.rawley Jeremy Rawley

    If Japan hadn’t adopted that fuck-backward closed-country policy during the Tokugawa era, this wouldn’t happen!

  • Adèle

    I might be wrong, but I learned in Japan that 出る釘は打たれる is actually a mistake.
    The actual expression would be 出る杭(くい)は打たれる, so it’s not a nail, but a stake ;-)

  • gem

    This is so interesting! Thanks ^_^