Groupthink in Japan: harmony or enforced collectivism?

“In Japan, it’s better not to stick out,” a friend of mine advises me over Vietnamese spring rolls and papaya salad in Shibuya. “We have a saying – the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Whenever I tell a local about the woes I face in Japan, this is the response I inevitably get. As a foreigner in Japan, I’ll always stick out. I’ll always be one of ‘them’. So my friend’s advise is both useless and worthless. But when that’s all you know, then you can’t advise anyone to do anything else, can you?

On the train home, I wondered – is this enforced collectivism a weakness or a strength? In many ways, Japan has achieved that elusive sense of harmony that so many countries are still struggling to achieve. Life here seems peaceful and stable. But this ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ has a price – and that’s uniformity. A colleague of mine once commented, “Japan is really really hard to get used to when you first get here. But once you’ve been here a while – everything is ridiculously predictable.”

Indeed, indeed.

Before moving to Japan – you could always count on me to admire a man in a good suit. Well – that was another life. These days, I see suits as a perfectly-pressed uniform – something that almost every adult man wears once he leaves university. And something that he will continue to wear until he retires.


On the train home, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the sight of the hoards of men in white shirts and dark pants who frequent trains into the wee hours of the night. Every night, I am assaulted by the sad scent of alcohol the moment I step on the train. So many people are dozing off on the shoulder of the stranger on the next seat. And many of those people will miss their train stop and end up God knows where (with God knows whom). I can’t help but feel sorry for the collective misery that all that alcohol is hiding.

People are told to give up their sense of self to foster group cohesion. People go through excessive lengths to maintain good relationships with their peers. It seems like a natural thing to want to do – except so much of maintaining a good relationship here in Japan seems to consist of telling white lies to avoid conflict and avoiding hard and overtly personal conversations. The concept of group harmony or wa 和 that is integral to Japanese society is rooted in the idea that group welfare must always come before individual self-interest. 

And I haven’t even gotten started on the gender roles. In Japan, men are largely providers and women are largely nurturers – which is fine if you’re content with the traditional set up; but I feel in Japan there is no other option. Men don’t stay home and take care of the kids and women don’t hold much power in public life. End of story. People who deviate from the norm are labelled okashi – which could translate to funny or strange.

Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out. Don’t speak out. Don’t start anything new.

If you do – you will be ostracised. An outcast. A nail that must be hammered down. 


I went to a business conference over the weekend and I felt so sorry for the guy who was up on stage. Public speaking in Japan is tough – not because you’ll get hackled – but because the audience can be an unresponsive and quiet bunch. That blank, tired and exasperated expression is all too familiar to me. The audience that seems to think that every question is rhetorical… There are days when I feel like I’m at the dentist pulling teeth. To think that most of the people who come to hear me speak do it of their own volition. Go figure… 

Having worked in both the East and West – I’ve noticed a pattern. In the West, people talk a lot and say things without quite thinking about the repercussions. In Asia, we sit there and listen obediently whilst someone tells us what to do. It’s a gross and oversimplified generalisation, but I’ve seen this pattern play out time and time and time again. A couple of months back I wrote about how people in the East and the West express their opinions and I believe both cultures have a lot to learn from each other.

As for me, I’ve always been the nail that sticks out. Having been hammered down time and time again, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s an incredibly painful experience. But the other option is sitting there, staying silent and doing what I am told even though I disagree with it.

Thanks… but no thanks.

Bring on the hammer. After all, it’s the hammer that made me hard as nails.


7 thoughts on “Groupthink in Japan: harmony or enforced collectivism?

  1. From one nail to another, very true. I’d still rather be that nail. But my Japanese friend in Finland was so right when she said the two cultures are so much alike. Had the same issue in Finland, stoic glances, arms folded over the chest (which in Finland signifies focus and concentration), and not a peep. I’d solve the issue during talks by blatantly saying, “you Sir / Madam, what do you think of this?”

    Me, I tend to blurt things out and then start thinking as I go along. Plus, I always claim my Jewish roots, “if I’m not talking over you, I’m not interested.” And touching. Didn’t realize how much I missed casual touching until I moved to Hungary again. It’s interesting.


    1. Yea… I don’t get it…I understand the whole not wanting to make mistakes thing. But who the hell will remember your mistake when most people don’t even remember what they had for dinner last night?

      During speaking events, I get people contributing from the get go… Otherwise they just sit there and stare at you like everything is going to magically happen if they just sit there.

      Learner-centred models of learning all the way.

      Haha… claiming your Jewish roots. I miss Israel. It was fun. I can’t imagine a country more opposite to Japan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I just woke the neighbors reading the last part. Can you imagine an Israeli-Japanese marriage? That would be interesting.

        But when it comes to mistakes, I agree. People should realize that it’s water under the bridge for the most part. I always tell my students, “I want you to make mistakes, this way we know what to work on.”


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