There is an old saying in Japanese which translates as “The nail that protrudes will be hammered down,” and it says much about the place of the individual in Japan’s group-oriented society.

All cultures must balance the often-conflicting needs of the individual to be happy, and of the society to function. But in Japan, historically and even up to the modern age, that balance more often favors society over the individual.

A recent court case in Osaka made this point in a stark, almost ridiculous fashion: A young woman sued her school because she, with her naturally dark brown hair, was harassed and intimidated by school authorities into dyeing her hair black to match her fellow students’ hair.

Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Photo by John Gillespie via Flickr

Now, social conformity is the rule in most traditional societies, where ostracism is the ultimate punishment; but Japan has all the appearances of a modern country, and the Japanese are most certainly a collection of unique individuals. Singular creatives like Yayoi Kusama and Haruki Murakami and many others make that abundantly clear. But such artists are also the exceptions that prove the rule: The “hammer” comes down with swift efficiency on average Japanese who step too far away from the culture’s well-established norms.

There are several reasons for this, which are rooted in Japan’s long geographic and cultural isolation, its racial homogeneity and its legendarily-efficient productivity, and they are not without positive effects: Japan is a unique, well-integrated and generally highly-functioning society that provides its people a sense of national self that is rare in the modern, rapidly-shifting world.

Japan’s isolation, at first geographic and then by decree, led to it evolving as a separate, homogenous culture. The Japanese see themselves as a nation apart even now, and there are enormous benefits this – the Japanese know who they are. But the cost has been that, in order to be truly Japanese, one must observe Japanese norms, and these are not optional. They are also ruthlessly enforced by the people themselves.

Photo by Janko Luin via Flickr

There are other reasons: Japan’s economy, before the post-War industrial “miracle,” was based on rice farming, which requires group efforts that an individual, or even an individual family, could scarcely manage alone. The creation of rice paddies, the management of water, the planting, harvesting and processing of rice are fundamentally group activities, and in order to make that work, group cohesion became essential to group success – that is, survival.

The upshot was that any individual who decided that he didn’t need to work with the group was very quickly disabused of that notion. The “rugged individualism” so admired by many in the West was anathema to the Japanese – and it still is.

It is telling that, in addition to the very clear proverb of the nail, there was no equivalent of the word for “individual” in Japanese prior to the opening to the West in the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. The words shakai (society) and kojin (individual) appeared only as translations of English words when these concepts were introduced. Until then, they had simply not been necessary.

What the Japanese had instead was the word mura, from the verb mureru, which means “to flock together,” as birds – and who thinks of birds as individuals? Thus, this “flock” of people were bound by something called seken, which means society, or more accurately, “the power of public opinion,” which still holds enormous sway over the members of the flock.

This worked fairly well for the society as long as it developed in isolation, and the strict social hierarchy of Japan’s medieval period – which ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 – kept everyone in place. But the industrialization and modernization that followed, then accelerated since the end of the Second World War, and has been a byproduct of the rapid globalization of the Information Age, has thrown Japanese society into conflict, with itself as well as the modern world.

Thus, trends such as the rise of divorce, the decline of family formation and other indicators of the change from collectivism to individualism – which has affected most cultures around the world – has been particularly stark in Japan. The Japanese are still acculturated to prefer group activities, group identities and to be suspicious of any nail that sticks up too far above the others.

Dancing Down the Street
Photo by Yiannis Theologos Michellis via Flickr

Combine this with the fundamental concept of wa, or harmony – which the Japanese go to great lengths to maintain, and which will be covered in another post – and one can see that even in the modern world, the position of the individual is still subject to the group.

Thus, the need for the hammer has, if anything, increased, even as it has been challenged by school girls who want to retain their natural hair color. The girl’s court case, filed in October 2017, is still pending.

By David Watts Barton