“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”

This overwhelming favourite Japanese proverb amongst Japan watchers is a MYTH. If you have ever seen a Japanese school teacher or mother at work you can instantly see that there is no hammering going on. The nail that sticks out is indulged until it decides it would rather not stick out after all in case that indulgence disappears.

See the Japanese Myths section for more Nippon stereotype busting.



  1. jacl said,

    April 29, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    I had heard of that proverb, but I thought that it meant to emphasize that you shouldn’t stand out from the group, that you should blend in, or else…

    It would be interesting to find out how that proverb came into being.

  2. kuro said,

    April 29, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    The same verbs exists in many cultures (using different words, but meaning the same). Lets make a bit. I bet it exists in all countries in one form or another were the society is layered and where there is a noticable hierarchy.

  3. Rattlegrass said,

    December 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    It’s not a myth. I spent a year in Japan and was married to a Japanese woman for 19 years. The group mentality is most certainly encouraged. That doesn’t mean everyone goes along with it. For example, Japanese musician Kitaro. He’s a nail that sticks up and could care less I assume. When my ex wife came here from Japan she kept looking for group mentality where it didn’t even exist. I married an agnostic and when she got pregnant she wanted to join the church. She thought we had a group mentality that encourages that. She knew that a person could be an agnostic and still be a good parent. But for whatever reason, she thought if we didn’t join the church we would be some sort of social outcasts.

  4. Chris said,

    December 22, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Conformity killed the cat!! Preventing tension and conflict amongst others around who might be different. You are pretty much left with mediocrity, which is boring, and a culture and people who can think of new ideas and innovative thoughts, well, only tend to copy. However, there are somethings and people I like in Japan that they managed to think of themselves.

  5. Prince Vasquez said,

    June 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    The first time I have heard this was in the movie Tokyo Drift… anyway, so this is about a foreigner that has to blend with the locals?

  6. alexcase said,

    July 12, 2011 at 4:30 am

    No one expects foreigners to blend in, and those that try too much are labelled “henna gaijin” (strange foreigners). It’s about the Japanese pressure to all be the same. The part that isn’t true is the hammering, as it is much more subtle than that.

  7. niki said,

    September 12, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    it is hard to be an accepted individual! when we learn the rules of society and what is “normal” you don’t want people to view you from your self-looking glass! i learn all this kind of stuff in my socialization class.

  8. Chris said,

    October 29, 2011 at 3:45 am

    It only applies to weak nails in Japan. Easy targets! It is useful for bullies and groups or people who think they are in the right and will be backed up by authority. If you want to do as you like and are slightly strong or scary then you can. This phrase leads to the most hypocritical situations I see in Japan more often than not and I hate it. The most common example in my life is on the train. Old ladies, drunk salarymen and schoolgirls are the rudest people on trains and do pretty much as they like. I have never seen anybody tell them to stop. From answering the phone to pushing in to molesting people they are given carte blanche. Should a foreigner talk too loudly or answer their phone there will always be a busy body ready to jump in and tell them they are breaking the rules and that person will always try to involve other Japanese on the train or even the police for this trivial matter. I would like to point out that I do not answer my phone on the train unless it is to say, ‘I am on the train I’ll call you back’ and speak quietly with friends though truth be told even that seems to be an annoyance to those who think train carriages are their private bedrooms. As a school teacher I also see bullying and other actions almost everyday that goes against this phrase. A more accurate phrase for Japanese society is the Orwellian, ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’. Japan has many fine examples of equality but we can often see bullies and victims too. We can also see the situation where a group cannot make any decision at all because nobody is willing to stand out and make a decision or proposal.

  9. anon said,

    March 20, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    The first time I heard this “myth” was in 1986 taking a Japanese language course at UCLA, when this “myth” was told to us by a Japanese native born teacher who discussed this myth, what it meant in popular culture, and how it also related to pronunciation of the Japanese language.


  10. alexcase said,

    March 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Well, it wouldn’t be a myth if no one believed it was true, would it? Evidence against:
    – There are many eccentrics in Japan who quite happily ignore all social pressure
    – Other societies such as Korea are much more conformist
    – Japanese “zoku”
    – Japanese parenting is actually mainly very indulgent

    Evidence for:
    – There is quite a lot of bullying and of teachers looking the other way because they think that the bullying helps get the children into line, but again that is much worse in Korea
    – “Recruit suits”

  11. crella said,

    March 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    That they ignore social pressure doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, Alex. people can be quite rudely censured, and at times cut off from the neighbors if behavior isn’t in line with everyone else. I am on my neighborhood committee and the minute infractions of the community rules that residents ask us to rectify can be amazing sometimes.

    Parenting is indulgent because society is seen as ‘cruel’ or ‘harsh’, with early childhood seen as the only time kids can take it easy. The ‘zoku’ aren’t accepted mainstream , in fact it’s quite hard for them to get jobs outside of construction etc. You have to be a powerful or rich eccentric to ignore society. The snubbing of women who dont’ dress properly for events, the sending of a doctor to the boonies because he doesn’t do exactly as his professor says, the examples of being hammered down are legion.

  12. alexcase said,

    March 29, 2012 at 6:32 am

    I agree with all your comments, Crella (and anyway always bow to your greater experience and involvement in Japanese society), but I still think the Nihonjinron obsession with this saying gives many foreigners a misleading idea of Japanese society.

    It is true that the Japanese do use direct pressure to force people to conform, and it is certainly true that anal old men get a lot more power here than many other places, but in both ways it just reminds me of growing up in a small town in 1970s Britain (although social pressure in Britain, like most other things, is more class specific). Even my hometown (25,000 people, average age 55) has moved on since the 70s, but that is simply because “there is no such thing as society” has become true for most British people. Places where society still means something are prone to pressure to conform, because that is what society means. Spanish and Italians young people are at least as conformist as Japanese young adults.

    My major problem, however, is with the word “hammer”. The pressure to conform/ social control that is brought to bear by most teachers and parents is less like hammering than the equivalents in our own countries – no clash of wills, no “you will just do what I say, young man”, few punishments. Instead, they are usually just indulged and/ or left to get on with it until they learn the pleasures of fitting in (I agree with you about the role of indulgence at home, but it being the most effective way of controlling is also a major factor, see mazaa kon for evidence). It’s different with adults, but it does also tend to be more subtle than the piss taking that goes on in British offices and it is this, I believe, that means that every office I have worked in in Japan has had at least one person who seems not to notice that there is any social pressure going on at all. This accidental space for eccentricity in a generally very pressurised society is also very similar to the UK.

    My final issue with this saying getting mentioned in every book about Japan is that it has two quite different meanings, and emphasis is usually given to the wrong one. The second meaning is similar to the “tall poppy syndrome” in Australia or the UK, and an explanation of the subtle differences between the Japanese concept and the UK/ Oz one would be much more useful than reiterating the unsurprising piece of information that there is pressure in Japan to conform.

  13. crella said,

    March 30, 2012 at 1:06 am

    I see exactly what you’re saying! I was looking at it , and posting from, the ‘tall poppy’ angle, not the other, I agree with you.

  14. crella said,

    March 30, 2012 at 1:08 am

    (posted too soon)

    I had been looking at it from only the one angle when posting. You make good points.

  15. Christopher said,

    August 7, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Often, old sayings might not apply to modern culture as much as they did when they were first coined. I was under the impression that this phrase comes from an older time during the Tokugawa Shogunate. In order to maintain power, the Tokugawa formed “police squads” that would round up any political enemies or anyone that spoke out against the government. It was therefore encouraged to act like everyone else, even to the point of ritualizing as much behavior as possible, in order to not be noticed by the government police. This is where I heard that all the precise rituals for everything, such as the tea ceremony, come from so that everyone blended in with everyone else. I had also heard that this era in Japan is where the three monkeys come from; see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil, but with a more sinister intent. When the police came in the night for a neighbor, it was best to be like those monkeys, to see nothing, hear nothing…say nothing. This could all be hearsay, since I didn’t read this in a university scholarly journal, but I found it very interesting.

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