The Nail That Sticks Out Is Just What Japan Needs

I was only in  Japan a few days before someone told me  that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”    As an American, I was brought up with “the early bird catches the worm”, so I wasn’t sure what to make  of the proverb that I was hearing in Japan on an almost daily basis.

I quickly learned that  I was hearing  an explanation of  a high degree of conformity and  a lack of willingness to take a risk. In some of my university classes, students only reluctantly volunteered their answers to my questions.  My consulting clients told me that this proverb was often offered as an explanation as to why there were so few volunteers for a new project.

No one wanted to stand out.

Not any more.

People are much more willing to stand out.  For something good. And they resist worrying about what others will think.

Here are some examples:

Young university graduates who once flocked to large trading companies are now starting their own companies.  They are escaping life in six mat rooms and joining with other entrepreneurs in group housing and creating their own communities.  They are going to Silicon Valley, Seoul and San Francisco to make cross border alliances and friends.

I meet salarymen who talk openly at work about surfing on the weekends, about playing in a band, about being gay. They stick out and are proud of it. They are not afraid to be different.  In fact, they embrace it.

Maybe the new nails are stronger.  Maybe technology has made them stronger.

So strong that they can’t be banged down.

And that’s a good thing.  It’s time to retire the old proverb and come up with something new.

How about, “the nail that sticks out is just what Japan needs today.”

[Note: I’m not sure how sticky this new proverb is, let me know what would be better.


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