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.”
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