Japan misunderstood: 3 stereotypes that live on


Every time I visit my home country and talk about my life in Japan, one thing becomes clear to me: Japan remains incredibly misunderstood overseas. With this in mind, today we’ll be discussing three stereotypes of Japan: the country’s apparent disdain for those who stand out from the crowd, the notion that Japan is a strict society, and that the idea of "losing face" is a quintessentially Asian concept.

1. The nail that stands up gets hammered down

This Japanese idiom is known world-wide among English speakers and is often used to show that conformity is valued, if not socially enforced, in Japan. People go on to apply the proverb to almost any situation they feel is exemplary. In the business world, Takafumi Horie is often cited as an example of a nail that was pounded back down. As the president of Livedoor, Horie rose to fame and fortune very quickly, outwitting most of his competition. But his competitors were not impressed with his quick rise to the top, his legal but “un-Japanese” business practices and his challenge to the status quo. They did everything they could to tear him down, eventually leading to accusations of falsifying accounts and misleading investors. “The nail that stands up,” right?

But anyone who has lived in Japan for more than a few years probably knows a handful of Japanese people who stick up like those wilful nails. Not only that, but they’ll notice that they haven’t been hammered back down either. And what about Masayoshi Son (of Korean descendant and CEO of SoftBank), Tadashi Yanai (founder and president of Uniqlo, Fast Retailing) and Hiroshi Mikitani (co-founder and CEO of Rakuten)? They were all once young, smart, entrepreneurial Japanese men who have since risen above the crowd by thinking, and performing, outside of the box. Even gifted people in our own countries aren’t always encouraged. There’s not an entrepreneur out there who hasn’t been told, “That’ll never work,” indicating that it’s a tough road to success for anyone starting their own company.

Of course, one idiom like “the nail that stands up gets hammered back down” should not define an entire culture. Few of us would care to have to constantly defend idioms such as “Children should be seen, not heard.” And remember, that while “seeing is believing” it’s also true that “appearances can be deceiving.”

2. Japan is a strict society

“How can you live in a society that is so rigid?” someone asked one of our foreign writers when he went home for a visit.

Japan is not strict so much as it is structured. The Japanese are generally hard-working people who are loyal to their companies and get little vacation time. In the US, people also work hard, often electing to do overtime for increased pay.

Not unlike the U.S., many people in Japan get one or two weeks of holiday time per year, and even then they don’t always take it. A recent MasterCard commercial on American TV (see video below) shows children scoffing at their parents for not taking their allotted vacation days (“They’re–paid–vacation–days” admonishes one little girl, who wants just one more day of a family vacation).

But structure can be a good thing too. When it comes to politeness and manners, structure provides a framework for people to work within and sets standards for what is acceptable and what isn’t. I often yearn for a bit more structure in the U.S, where one individual’s rights can trump the rights of the group.

I have a Japanese friend who came over to the U.S. to study and has decided not to go back to Japan. She says that the society there is too strict and that she prefers it here.

I have no doubt that is true. However, I think we need to be careful not to conclude that therefore “here” is a better place than “there” or that expats are representative of the average person in their respective countries. Expats are a niche group, who tend to be motivated out of a desire to seek prospects abroad, a trait not necessarily shared by most of their countrymen. Like the myriad expats in Japan, you’ll always find people who prefer to live outside their home countries for whatever reason.

I met a guy who is a Buddhist priest in Japan. He said he had no choice but to become a priest because he inherited the position from his father.

It is true that some Japanese children feel pressured to succeed their progenitors in the family business or to inherit positions they do not really want. Yet it’s not a coincidence that in the U.S. you’ll find entire families of lawyers, doctors and engineers. Since time immemorial, fathers have wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps, to take the path they worked so hard to pave for them. In the U.S., you still hear “My father wanted me to become a lawyer,” or “My parents weren’t so thrilled with my decision to become an artist,” all indicating that they had disappointed their elders. The pressure is, I believe, universal.

3. I’ve heard that ‘losing face’ is a really big thing over there.

Perhaps one reason it is hard for many westerners to grasp this concept is due to its translation. “Losing face,” despite comprising two words of the English language, is not a phrase used very often when talking about ourselves. Saving face and losing face are related to embarrassment, shame and exposure and the degrees within. On the most basic level, in Japan one would just be advised to not embarrass or expose people in public, the way you shouldn’t in your own country either. If you have a bone to pick with someone, you wait for the appropriate time to take that person aside to talk to them rather than confronting them in front of others. Consider the guidelines suggested in the well-known phrase: “Never talk about politics or religion.” In other words, it will always result in hard feelings.

Did your parents lose face when you decided not to study to become a doctor as they had hoped, and became an artist instead? No, your parents were probably just disappointed. Did your parents lose face when you declined an interview they had set up for you with a friend who was the admissions director at the Harvard School of Medicine? No, but they were probably a little bit embarrassed to have to tell the admissions director that you turned them down. But if you accepted the interview then failed to show up for it and didn’t even call to cancel, now your parents are ashamed. They have lost face. And so have you.

While these examples risk oversimplifying a complex issue, the point is that if you can discover similar values in your own culture, you may find that these concepts are not so esoteric after all and are rather individual facets of a larger societal structure.

While stereotypes all possess a grain of truth, let’s not make the mistake that everyone falls into such stereotypes.

I’ll leave you with a piece of advice from Uniqlo founder Yanai. It might make you think twice about the popular belief that the Japanese are not risk-takers.

“I might look successful but I’ve made many mistakes. People take their failures too seriously. You have to be positive and believe you will find success next time.”

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Nine reasons why Japanese men hesitate to say “I love you” -- “I think I love you…”: Romantic confessions from around the world -- “The meanest dog in Japan” returns with all new rejections

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"The nail that stands up gets hammered down"

And as the recent case of the Sumo stable-master shows, the Japanese take it literally. You will literally get beaten to the point to death at the whim of a sociopath...

And the dictionary definition of "sociopath" is: "a ​person who is ​completely ​unable or ​unwilling to ​behave in a way that is ​acceptable to ​society"

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

Exceptions that prove the rule.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

Wow, this author Chavez seems to be in the throes of the Stockholm syndrome.

3 ( +12 / -9 )

This is a good balanced article.

-2 ( +11 / -13 )

I've found that faulty applications of inductive reasoning, that is reasoning that derives general principles from specific observations, is what leads to harmful stereotypes. I think that's dangerous. Of course cultures vary and affect us as individuals, but I don't think we should ever reduce individuals in a culture to a certain type, to a stereotype.

Here’s my cultural ‘algorithm’ (no references, no science, no math, not crowd-sourced; my-side biased, just like yours).

I think most individuals, regardless of the culture they come from, can slide up and down the categories below situationally.

In any modern culture: 30% are inwardly focused; traditional; outsiders defined and demarcated; outsiders viewed with distrust, even disdain; rarely if ever travel outside their culture; strong beliefs in own cultural myths and fictions; other cultures’ beliefs viewed ranging from odd to scary; 1/3 of these (10% of total population within culture) have extremist views regarding protecting culture; 10% of extremists willing to commit violent acts in the name of their culture; cultural memes are so parasitic that members of the group are extremely bigoted and dangerous, are Eric Hoffer’s ‘True Believers’ (B. Johnson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ also offers interesting perspectives)

15% enjoy their own culture while accepting cultural differences; enjoy learning about the myths and fictions other cultures have; see value in cultural blending; enjoy traveling abroad; enjoy mixing with outsiders; able to question own culture’s myths and fictions

5% have disdain for their own culture; reject most of their own culture’s myths and fictions; more interested in myths, fictions and memes of other cultures than their own

50% just want to get on with their lives; focus on family, friends and self; mixed feelings about outsiders, but are more easily influenced by the inwardly focused.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

An interesting article.

Some points. The "..Japan remains incredibly misunderstood overseas..." statement could apply to most countries / societies. Substitute for example Sweden, Indonesia, Iran, America etc.... fo Japan and the same can ring true. You know all Swedes are Liberals and into sex, Iranians belong to death cults, all Americans love guns ad nauseum.

The use of structured vs strict is just one of definition / interpretatiion. Are Japanese schools stricter than say Australian schools - the article suggests no - they are simply more structured. That's one interpretation. Are Japanese company offices generaly stricter in organization than say French companies. The article suggeats no - they are simply more structured. That's one interpretation.

Do Japanese people in school / workplace / daily social environment / community generaly speak out more or act in an outwardly assertive manner than for arguments sake Italians. There is an understood social more in Japan about "standing out" regardless of your thoughts or actions, so I would argue against the suggestion that "being hammered down" doesn't exist here any more than many other societies. A few super-successful examples like Son is indicative of nothing except Mr. Son is successful.

And losing face carries weight in all societies (as do the other points) but it certainly bears down upon all much more significantly , esp in the public arena, here in Japan. Otherwise you wouldn't have that ubiquitous spectacle of deeply bowing to express remorse (saving face - a little) on tv almost every day. The whole concept of Tatemae - Honne wraps itself around the column of saving face.

While I admire the writers notion that overtly simplified stereotypes, in particular those of a whole country's population, can be extremely questionable - there do exists cultural traits, customs and behaviours that can be interpreted as general reflections of a society in itself. The examples set forth in the article are, in my opiniion, not necessarily the best examples of typical "stereotyping" of the Japanese people.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

While stereotypes all possess a grain of truth, let’s not make the mistake that everyone falls into such stereotypes.

Valid point. However just as valid is the fact that in Japan, especially as it relates to the three stereotypes referenced here, that "grain of truth" is more like a full silo. Sure there are exceptions, but, there are also dozens and dozens of statistics, which say these are valid generalizations. Just take #1, "The nail that stands up gets hammered down". I read recently where the majority of college grads in Japan want lifetime employment, rather than face the prospect of moving between jobs. In other words, they crave security and conformity, because we all know that is what Japan Inc. demands.

-1 ( +8 / -9 )

Regarding the nail that sticks up....

Nearing two happy decades living in Japan, the only people I've heard use that expression are other foreigners. Not once have I heard a Japanese person use it.

And, small sample size, the few Japanese that I've asked about it, had, in fact, never heard it at all.

I wonder if "the nail that sticks up must be hammered down" now says more about an outsider's idea of Japan than Japan itself.

-12 ( +3 / -15 )

@Polar Cities - "Wow, this [non-native-English-speaking] author Chavez seems to be in the throes of the Stockholm syndrome"

Yes, just like many of the people here on who are nothing more than pathetic Uncle Tom's who should go back to their own countries.

The Japanese don't need, want, or even like you... ;-)

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

powdweb - because people don't use the expression "the nail that stands out..." openly, doesn't mean the sense of it does not impact social behaviour.

My wife said her generation(40s ~ 50s) all know it only too well and it certainly is paramount in her work environment (bank). My high-school daughter said students at her school don't say it or some probably don't even know it - but the concept is well and truly practised esp in club activities.

And personally, over the years, I've actually heard "出る釘は打たれる" expressed, but more so witnessed it in action for no other reason than as a declaration of power - without it being mentioned at all.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

@browny1 - "I've actually... witnessed it in action for no other reason than as a declaration of power"

So yes, in Japan to be REPEATEDLY BEATEN WITH A HAMMER until the victim is praying for death is an accepted method of ensuring that "conformity is... socially enforced"

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Comparing Son to Horie is a mistake. Son is already "hammered down" because he is ethnic Korean and already excluded by Japanese society (couldn't get a job in a top company, etc). Horie is full Japanese and therefore subject to the "hammer down" rule. Now, here is a mind-bender for you: one oft-cited stereotype of Japanese is that they complain about being 'misunderstood'. Try that on for size. LOL

8 ( +10 / -2 )


It's actually 出る杭は打たれる

Everyone thinks it's 'nail', but the Japanese idiom is actually 'stake' or 'post'.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Stranger - thanks - didn't know that. Kinda has a more sinister element to it - you know stakes & vampires lol.

0 ( +1 / -1 )


0 ( +0 / -0 )

Not unlike the U.S., many people in Japan get one or two weeks of holiday time per year, and even then they don’t always take it.

Dud. In the US, you earn annual vacation daysl and sick leave. And you can take the time off at you're discretion. Unlike the nightmarish travel conditions during Golden Week or Bon.

Better, when your maxed out on vacation time, the company actually encourages the employee to take time off. Best, when you burn a couple days of sick leave (even if you're not really sick), nobody from the office will be breathing down your neck to ask why.

This article is typical pro-Japan, Rocket News garbage.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

"While stereotypes all possess a grain of truth, let’s not make the mistake that everyone falls into such stereotypes."

Geez... this from the site that publishes a list of "Five Types of Foreigners in Japan", "6 Types of Japanese", and all sorts of similar lists and articles grouping an entire world of people into a mere few categories?

While this is a better written article than a lot of the stuff that comes from RocketNews (and there IS good stuff, don't get me wrong), I don't think Ms. Chavez has really proven that the stereotypes aren't true -- just pointed out that it does not necessarily make one place worse and another better, which is true. Yes, there are a few exceptions, but there are reasons they are called generalizations and/or stereotypes.

I don't really think the second stereotype is true. A society of too many obligations coupled with the 'nail/stake that sticks out', yes, but 'strict society', not really.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

People don't take much vacation time, but there are quite a few national holidays.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

@browny1-- did not say the concept doesn't exist. I said I've never heard the expression used by Japanese. That's all. A mere comment on the proverb itself, not the country or culture.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I find Japanese people don't tend to use a lot of ことわざ when speaking, even though they have them. I use them more in Japanese than most Japanese people I speak to.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

"Japanese people have no souls". Old one.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The intent is praiseworthy. The delivery is not impressive. Anecdotes are no substitute for intelligent analysis and documentation. This article more about Amy Chavez than it is about Japan.

"The nail (or peg) that stands up gets hammered down" is not a stereotype but a proverb. It is an old proverb that has more to do with ancient totalitarianism and the strictures village life. It can be applied to any situation that is authoritarian not only in Japan but anywhere else in the world. It applies to schools, corporations and bureaucracies in Japan, but not only in Japan. The late Minamoto Masao wrote a book," Straitjacket Society" about this. The people he wrote about who were afraid to think for themselves and act without a set of instructions were the nails (or pegs) who never stood out and were absolutely worthless in a crisis, as we saw in Tohoku in 2011 and in Kobe-Awaji in 1995. In both cases, spontaneous grass roots groups took action while the central government fiddled.

The general tendency in this country is not to stand out. It is not altogether uniform of course. But it is there,

Is Japan a strict society? (Item two.) It depends on what you mean. Japan has an active Communist Party. Even though prostitution is against the law bordellos (Seaplanes) operate without impunity. If you are a Japanese man you can get roaring drunk in public and not lose face (item three). Regarding work, this country can be very "strict" in the way it exploits people. In item two Chavez only babbles anecdotes.

Losing face. Yes, Japanese worry about losing face. So does everyone else. The whole business of "face" is an issue that requires a book. Or at least an extended article. Not a jumble of chitchat.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The late Minamoto Masao wrote a book," Straitjacket Society"

I remember reading that when it came out. Minamoto san really NAILED IT(sorry couldn't resist)!!

Definitely recommended reading!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Again ms. Chavez misses the crux of the matter. She uses Horei as an example and because of his troubles people think thrice about any enteprenurial direction. Bullying is the result of being different. She gives ONE example of some talking about his mistakes. What a way to generalize a country.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The nail that sticks out: Hmmm ... then how about all those school kids bullied by teachers and classmates because they are different.

Japan a strict society: Hmmm ... and when an employee messes up then the boss goes on TV and bows with the "sumimasendeshita" and takes away privileges from employees to apologize for the one bad apple.

Losing face a big deal: Hmmm ... suicides for being in debt or for having a relative who is in jail.

Yep, don't bring attention to yourself, watch out who associate with, and know you will be held accountable for the actions of your family and co-workers.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Things like Japanese don't blow their nose in public, always wash themselves before going into a communal bath, don't eat while walking, are quiet, etc. I was brainwashed into believing these things before I came to Japan. And then reality hit me in the face. They're no different to anyone else. I'd rather they just admit it.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

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