The Nail That Sticks Up... Conformity in Japan

    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.

    A heavily-filtered photograph of a Japanese apartment building from the outside where all the units look exactly the same
    Source: 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.

    Man at a carnival bringing a large hammer down on a peg
    Source: 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.