Hitting the nail on the head


“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down!”

Most visitors to Japan end up bludgeoned with this weighty axiom early on during their stay. Sharp notions of group-centered society and the awesome pressures to conform get pounded deep into the psyche, and before long the typical observer believes most Japanese would rather be anything but different.

Yet is this timeworn maxim still in effect? For these days Japanese culture seems to have quite a few nails sticking up and out at all angles imaginable, with very few heads on guard for hammers.

Witness the younger generation thumbing its nose at workaholic values, women building actual careers, athletes rushing for paychecks overseas, older housewives giving heave-hos to their do-nothing husbands, and some romantic couples even spit-swapping in public.

Is this the same Japan that we all know and sometimes love? Or are the times really a-changing? It would seem the matter needs closer examination.

So let’s have at it. What follows is a teasing wink at what the folks in the Japanese limelight might now seem to be saying about the old adage of the hammer and the nail.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: In this instance, I believe we must again put our trust in intelligence from the Bush administration, no matter how oxymoronic that may seem. After all, if America feels that nails no longer need to be hammered down, who is Japan to say no?

Opposition leader Naoto Kan: The Koizumi government has consistently shown no concern for nails whatsoever. As such, Koizumi has turned his back on a well-respected Japanese tradition. I thereby call for him to resign and pledge to cooperate with fresh leadership in order to drive all protruding nails back where they belong.

Diet member Junichiro Koga: Actually, I studied this topic during my time at Pepperdine. . . . Or maybe that was UCLA. Or CSULA. Or maybe I didn’t study it. Who knows? Certainly not me.

Diet member Muneo Suzuki (indicted in 2003 for accepting bribes): Listen, I know nothing about this. Hammers, nails — my secretary dealt with those matters, not me. I am completely innocent, I swear.

Diet member Makiko Tanaka: Could you perhaps be referring to me? Are you hinting that I stick out? And that maybe I’ve got a big mouth? And that I won’t shut up? That I just keep rambling on and on? That I talk and talk and talk? That I’m just words, words, words, words? OK. So go ahead, then. Hammer me down. And good luck. It’s been tried before.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara: Whether or not to hammer Japanese nails is not the issue. The issue is foreign nails. These cannot be trusted and must be walloped flat at every opportunity.

Bank of Japan Gov. Toshihiko Fukui: The ongoing depreciation of hammers has resulted in investment houses having too much of their portfolios tied up in assets of little value. In other words, until we can take some of this bad hammer debt off the books, the economy will continue to be nailed down tight.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe: I hope for a day when our society will rely on neither hammers nor nails, but rather on the integrity of the human heart.

Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei: The new “Hammer and Nail” video game for PlayStation 2 will be “hitting” the market later this year, just in time for the holiday season.

Pop singer Ayumi Hamazaki: Some people think I’m sort of stupid, but look! I’ve got lots of pretty nails! Five on this hand and then . . . hmm, that’s odd . . . no, wait! Five on this hand too! I just had it backward! What a relief! And the good thing is they don’t need to be hammered down at all. All you need to do is chew them a bit now and then.

NHK news announcer Satoshi Hatakeyama: This computer simulation shows what might happen if a nail were indeed struck by a hammer. According to a recent NHK survey, 5.3 percent of the population believe the results would be positive, 5.3 percent believe they would be negative, 5.3 percent have no opinion whatsoever, and everyone else appears to be watching other channels.

Ex-sumo star Akebono: I dunno about nails, but Bob Sapp’s got a hammer, let me tell you.

Comedian Akashiya Sanma: Sure, sure, nails that stick out may be hammered down. But let’s not apply this to teeth, OK?

Baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima: Well, a nail is sort of like a baseball bat on a smaller scale. Yet, as we all know, scales are typically found on fish, and fish have no place on a baseball diamond. However, I think diamonds are a wise investment and — perhaps no coincidence — are hard enough to withstand a hammer.

Ex-sumo wrestler Konishiki: Well, I stick out some, and no one has ever hammered me down. Of course, they’d need a helluva big hammer.

Supporting actor Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe: At this point, who cares about hammers? Do you realize what a triumph it is to stick out next to Tom Cruise?

TV celebrities Kyoko and Mika Kano: Our experience says that objects sticking out are far more likely to attract cameras than hammers.

Elementary school student Nobi Nobita: In my bedroom, I’ve got this blue cat, see, who says that in the future hammers and nails won’t matter at all. Everything’s gonna be Velcro.

The Emperor: We wish to express our most heartfelt gratitude to both hammers and nails for their wonderful and continuing contributions to Japanese culture.

Hello Kitty: :)

Television MC Mino Monta: I have thought this over deeply, and here is my ‘final answer’ “: . . . (long pause) . . . (longer pause) . . . (even longer pause) . . . (commercial).