Hammers and sickles
Posted by ampontan on Friday, April 8, 2011
THERE’S AN acid test guaranteed to separate the bogus from the bona fide for those who pass themselves off as Japan hands. It’s easy to apply, too: Anyone who uses the alleged proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” to proclaim that the Japanese repress originality is a fraud. That’s a reliable signal to turn the page, change the channel, or click on the next website.
The most important of the several reasons why that test is infallible is that they’ve botched the proverb. The handful of people who cite it and actually know some Japanese assume it is Deru kugi ha (wa) utareru, but that’s a mistake. Instead of kugi, or nail, the word is kui (杭), a post or a stake. And—because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing—they’ve also botched the meaning.
The Japanese employ the concentrated insights of proverbs in speech and writing more often than people in the Anglosphere, and their long political, cultural, and literary history means they have a large supply from which to draw. That also means there are plenty of inexpensive proverb dictionaries available in bookstores, with more examples than anyone will ever be able to use in a lifetime. I have one published by Goto Shoin in 1979 that runs more than 500 pages and has definitions for roughly 10 proverbs a page. The author sources the oldest Japanese proverb as coming from the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), which was completed in the eighth century.
Here’s how the author defines this proverb:
“A post that protrudes too far will be driven in further. In the same way, people who assert their pre-eminence over the general public will be envied and meet with difficulties as a result. There’s nothing wrong with excelling or becoming a prominent figure, but human emotion resists that logic. Indeed, people who push themselves forward despite a lack of talent generally receive no forbearance from others.”
He cites one variation on the proverb as, “The post that sticks out is pounded by the waves.” He finally mentions the variation with the nail at the end of the entry, but dismisses it as a mistake. (In fact, he uses the word “bad” to describe its use.)
Therefore, the adage has nothing to do with enforcing conformity to a rigid social order. Rather, it combines a warning that one shouldn’t get too big for one’s britches with the observation that jealousy can have unpleasant consequences. And we all know that the latter is a universal human phenomenon rather than a Japan-only attribute. After all, the belief of some that the redistribution of wealth by a government through confiscatory taxation is a “progressive” concept didn’t originate here.
It doesn’t take much thought to see what happened. Either a foreigner misheard kui as kugi and jumped to the wrong conclusion, or he was steered in the wrong direction by a Japanese fuzzy on the details himself. That the proverb with the nail mistake circulates in some English-speaking circles shows it is being parroted by foreigners with a parrot’s understanding of what they’re saying. The same thing occurred when people used to believe the myth that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words for snow.
The subject comes up because reader Get a Job Son sent in a link to an article by John Feffer in the Huffington Post titled Gambling in Japan. Feffer is described as having lived in Japan in the 90s, though the extent of his stay isn’t mentioned. Considering what little he knows, it couldn’t have been that long. Try this:
“On the outside, Japan appears to be a clean, well-ordered place. The Japanese are, stereotypically, risk-averse. According to the Japanese adage, deru kugi wa utareru: the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. This apparent preference for order and conformity helps explain the patience with which the Japanese have responded to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, and the partial meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facility – that has afflicted the country.”
Feffer doesn’t explain why a preference for conformity explains the Japanese response to the disaster, or why conformity would be a factor at all. The preference for order is certainly not unique to the Japanese, as few people anywhere are interested in the alternative. And to use one small example, neither order nor conformity explains why Hitachi’s Ibaragi plant, which manufactures generators and gas and steam turbines, resumed post-earthquake operations on 30 March and reached 90% of their productive capacity by 4 April.
Feffer’s point does not rest on a simple, shallow argument, however. It’s not possible to be a convincing public intellectual unless one uses a more complicated shallow argument. That’s why he digs up an irrelevant old anecdote of a 19th century kabuki performer who died because he couldn’t discipline his taste for the potentially poisonous blowfish, and uses it as a metaphor for the country’s mindset:
“Beneath this façade of conformity, however, lies a more interesting reality. Like Mitsugoro Bando VIII, the Japanese have become almost inured to calamity. They’ve accepted – and in some cases courted – extraordinarily risky behavior.
“Consider Japan’s dependence on nuclear energy.”
His discussion of nuclear power plants in Japan, which overlooks the placement of large hydroelectric dams on fault lines in India and China, suggests his agenda is something other than explicating the nature of Japanese behavior. Sure enough:
“Embracing nuclear power isn’t Japan’s only risky behavior. For years, the Japanese government has boasted of a “peace constitution” that restricts the country to a defense-only posture. But this constitution hasn’t prevented Japan from amassing one of the world’s most powerful militaries, confronting China and Korea over disputed islands, cooperating with the United States on a missile defense system that destabilizes the region, and playing host to dozens of U.S. military bases that endanger human lives and the surrounding environment.
“Is there somehow a contradiction between the stereotypical conformity of the average Japanese and this tendency to court disaster in the economic, military, energy, and humanitarian sectors?”
What do you know! A walking, talking strawman!
Hey, why stop at one caricature when you can use several?
“When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon late at night to come upon office workers passed out on the street, vomiting in alleyways, or being carried home by their equally inebriated colleagues. Excessive drinking after work was part of the salaryman culture. Indeed, it could be awkward for a businessman to demur from such rituals. When such behavior becomes the norm, then engaging in risky activities becomes just another way of conforming. Of course, it’s only a sector of Japanese society that drinks to excess.”
Feffer doesn’t know anything about salaryman culture, of course, because he wasn’t part of it. (He would have been sure to tell us otherwise). Nor would he know about who does or doesn’t demur from such “rituals”, what is or what isn’t the norm with drinking habits, what is or what isn’t a ritual, who does or who doesn’t conform, and who does or who doesn’t drink to excess.
Many Japanese men drink prodigious amounts of alcohol, regardless of whether they are salarymen, carpenters, or even politicians, including Prime Minister Kan Naoto and the late Nakagawa Shoichi. It has nothing to do with “salaryman culture”, which in any event had already begun to wane in the late 90s when Feffer blew through town. Had he kept his wits about him when writing this piece, it might have occurred to him to blame all the boozing on the stress of conformist behavior to avoid getting pounded in like the nail that sticks out, rather than conforming to “salaryman culture”.
In fact, had he taken the time to do some reading, he would have discovered the many stories of sake-loving divinities in Shinto mythology, created millenia before salarymen existed. The Japanese have always had a taste for the rice. People were singing out of tune and carrying each other home long before the first joint-stock corporation was formed.
But none of that is his real point anyway. He edges up to it here:
“An oligarchy of gamblers holds sway over the majority of cautious Japanese.”
An “oligarchy” controlling a race of conformist, red-nosed lushes too wimpy to express themselves, eh?
The choice of the inappropriate word “oligarchy”, the statement about a mighty Japanese military confronting China and some entity called “Korea”, the claim that a missile defense system is destabilizing, the use of the ruse of environmental concerns (about an endangered species of dugong) to object to American military installations, and the unexplained assertion that Japan is courting disaster in the “humanitarian sector” all point in the direction of a certain worldview.
Once again, Google is our friend. The Huffpo identifies Feffer only as the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. The FPIF website announces that they are a “project” of the Institute for Policy Studies. That institute openly identifies itself as a “left-wing think tank”, as even Sidney Blumenthal, the American political version of Sid Vicious, notes with approval. Noam Chomsky is an associate.
A group that so quickly cops to being leftist is sure to have some rather large rocks on their turf to provide cover for some rather slimy worms and ugly slugs. This particular left-wing think tank cooperated with the KGB in planting disinformation in Europe about NATO. A brief scan is enough to discover the usual cast of Bolshies, Reds, Pinks, Crimsons, communitarians, Gramsciites, and the other undifferentiated hairballs who use eco-lunacy, pacifism, and similar counterfeit issues to conceal their real motivations and the sweat-stained Che Guevara t-shirts under their more socially acceptable haberdashery.
Japan is not Feffer’s chosen field of study; North Korean apologistics is. Still floating around unflushed on the web is his justification of Pyeongyang’s 2009 missile launch:
“North Korea is clearly interested in still reaching out, working with, engaging with the international community.”
The Foreign Policy in Focus website informs us that a detailed statement of their positions is contained in the paper, Just Security. Feffer edited the paper, which is found on the IPS website. Here’s one of the planks of their program:
“Start a managed resource transfer from rich to poor countries through climate-friendly global justice, trade, and aid policies. This would involve a border fee on “dirty trade” that would help developing countries shift to clean energy.”
Feffer is not the first to pretend that a brief stay in Japan qualifies him to discuss the nation as if he knew something about it, nor is he the first to unload hearsay misinformation as a way to present himself as a big league thinker. This might be the first time, however, that someone has used the overseas manga edition of the country to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with Japan.
It’s curious that some would swallow the idea that the Japanese advocate pounding in posts, nails, or people as a part of everyday life. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Koizumi Jun’ichiro, no one’s idea of a conformist, spent five successful years as prime minister. The cautious Japanese electorate would love to have that reckless gambling oligarch back tomorrow if they could. They’d be so overjoyed, in fact, they might force each other to get falling down drunk and pass out in the streets. Then again, people of a certain political orientation are loath to portray a man of Mr. Koizumi’s beliefs in a positive light. Calling attention to the Koizumi record of accomplishment would only accentuate the failures of their own heroes.
The people who come to Japan and pay attention to their surroundings soon realize it is almost impossible to get through a day without discovering unpounded posts sticking out all over the place. Just yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article about private sector efforts to hire people from the Tohoku area who have been put out of work by the disaster. At the end of the piece, the author briefly mentioned that Cococala-mura of Awaji Island would make it a policy to give preference to hiring young people from that region. Accompanying the article was the photo shown here of people working in the Cococala fields.
It was easy to turn up their Japanese language website, which reveals it to be an enterprise that would be in imminent danger of a raid by mallet-bearing thought police were the myth a reality. The project is operated by Pasona, a company specializing in temporary staffing, recruiting, and human resource consulting. Pasona hires as employees young musicians, actors, dancers, and others in the arts to work at local farms or regional businesses while they take courses in business, arts management, and agriculture. The idea seems to be to have them to do something tangibly productive with their time as they learn to become self-supporting professionals.
A company in Japan has come up with a capital idea for nurturing self-reliance and providing the means for success to people in a field in which it is difficult to make a decent living. It’s better in every imaginable way than using public funds for national arts subsidies. Is it a coincidence that Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi’s privatization guru, is the company’s chairman?
Meanwhile, a political extremist without the slightest interest in Japan is so unwilling to let a crisis go to waste that he parades the Trojan horse of his ignorance as knowledge to disguise the parasitic bacteria inside.
Something would benefit from being pounded in, but Japanese fence posts ain’t it.
My use of the word “pound”, incidentally, is as figurative as that of the Beatles.