Japanese culture is often seen through a Western lens of honesty, kindness and hard work ingrained in rich traditions and values. These traits are not uncommon. However, what happens when one fails to follow these?
Does the infamous proverb “the nail that sticks out must be hammered down” speak true of Japanese society?
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” “出る釘は打たれる deru kugi wa utareru” comes up in daily conversations when speaking about Japanese society. The hammer of course refers to society and the nail, to an individual. The hammer ridicules and scrutinises nails which stand out, then proceed until pressured to conform. Nails are seen to pose a threat to a stable foundation. The concept of conformity is usually heavily influenced by religion. Although a philosophy, not a religion, Confucianism is thought to have dominated the thinking of the Edo period in Japan, by practising peace and harmony and mainly putting others’ feelings before your own. Additionally, these ideas have since been reiterated throughout the centuries and with the 9th article in Japan’s constitution for ‘international peace based on justice and order’.
The pros of conformity
Japan has a population of 125.7 million, it’s surprising that such a homogeneous culture exists without communism. One of the largest populations in the world with surprisingly, one of the lowest crime rates, most stable economies, cleanest streets surrounded by convenience. Without conformity would Japan have such luxuries?
Covid and conformity
During the COVID-19 pandemic, conformity was at an all-time high. Japan implemented avoiding the “3 Cs” (closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings)”. Of course, without protest, these rules were followed religiously and successfully, unlike in any other country. As a result, Japan had a much lower mortality rate compared to the US. In fact, Japanese companies that seemed to neglect these measures for COVID-19 were named and shamed publicly in the media during this period. This instance of conformity with society hammering down on deviants felt necessary to magnify the seriousness of the pandemic.
Where the conformity begins
Elementary and junior high schools in Japan are where the hammering begins. Female students are forced to dye their hair black (even if naturally brown) and encouraged to have the same haircut as their peers. Failure to follow these rules results in being penalised by teachers and humiliated in front of classmates. This discouragement of individuality from a young age can hinder growth and later, can cause severe effects on mental health and the following of extreme beauty standards. Students will also skip classes altogether as 244,940 students at elementary and junior high schools across Japan were absent in 2022, the highest level on record. This is evidence that being forced to conform can cause rebellion. Individualism is not celebrated at school, not only with appearance but also with personality, which is discouraged from a young age with schools only putting copious amounts of effort into competitive achievements which in the future can cause negative side effects with disappointment when students fail to reach expectations.
The brutal reality
‘Salaryman’ is the poster child for the hammer and nail proverb. In Japan, a salaryman is highly valued and respected. They are expected to work for their lifetime in a ‘black’ company and if they are loyal, they’ll be rewarded. Failure to fulfil companies’ wishes for overtime or after-work drinking can cause financial burdens as one will slowly be forced to hand in their resignation or be demoted to a lower position. Instead, without complaints, salarymen are lulled into a world of being praised for their hard work and even begin to believe it by bragging about working excessive hours of overtime, without pay. The inability to express true feelings can continue for decades until inevitable side effects such as burn-out, and mental health issues arise. This is an example where the nail being hammered down is not crucial to the running of working culture however younger generations are striving for more work-life balance.
“The nail that sticks out must be hammered down” can be applied to many areas of Japanese society. However, this concept is not linear. It’s a belief, a guideline that pushes towards conformity. It can be used to promote peace and harmony however can also be misused to instil exaggerated forms of control which have detrimental effects on individuals who simply cannot fit into the status quo. But of course, traditions and patterns must be broken to make way for new ones. But with Japan, although there is a glimmer of hope, change is going to be a very slow process to take care of the beaten nails.