The nail that sticks up will be hammered down

Fascinating interview in today’s Financial Times (subscription required) with Takafumi Horie, the Japanese internet tycoon who spent three months in police detention after his company Livedoor was raided on fraud charges. He’s now awaiting trial and faces a possible 5-year sentence.

Hammered down He quotes the old Japanese adage The nail that sticks up will be hammered down to explain his treatment at the hands of the Japanese bureaucratic establishment, claiming they were resentful of his overnight success in stark contrast to their own measured progress up the ranks.

This might just be the rants of an entrepreneur who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. We’ve seen chaps in similar pickles make improbable claims in this country. Back in the late 80’s Charles Keating blamed government regulators for the failure of Lincoln Savings. Ken Lay blamed a conspiracy of news media and short sellers. Lord Conrad Black, the Canadian/British newspaper magnate blamed “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised” journalists who worked for him for part of his downfall.

I’ve yet to read about a Western businessman who blamed socially sanctioned extremes of egoistic behavior for their misdeeds. Yet, many senior executives must seem, in terms of Japanese cultural norms, as suffering from this very disease. We are all, from the C-suite to the soup line, sorry egos, perennially seeking for elusive and transitive happiness. As Adi Da notes, we spend our lives involved in “usual round of obsession, fear, and seeking — in which the egoic self is the actor and the meaning of the drama.”

However, the theaters in which our egoic dramas are enacted do have significantly different stage sets to prance in front of and scripts to learn by heart. You better find out early on if you’ve been cast in a 75-80 year run at the Kabuki or Radio City Music Hall and know how to play the game accordingly.

As Richard Lewis reports, the rigorous way in which Japanese society deals with nonconformity starts in early childhood. Rather than encouraging expressions of individuality, Japanese parents and teachers reinforce the primacy of the group and chastise those who stand out. While they might not literally use the hammer, they enforce a web-centered social order where the individuals needs are subsumed by the groups with extensive moral and social obligations recognized up and down the hierarchy.

I can only assume the older Japanese bureaucrats must regard Horie-san with the same degree of incomprehension as Westerners regard occasions of extreme of group-oriented behavior among Heaven’s Gate cultists or Stepford Wives.

It’s straightforward enough to ID an actor from the extreme ends of the spectrum – the Japanese saleryman and the Texan oilman. Where things get interesting is in the fuzzy edges of culture.

Tall Poppy Consider Australia. Who would’ve thunk that the same country which produced rugged individualists like Crocodile Dundee and Ned Kelly could have anything in common with Japan?

Lewis struggles to classify a society where there are echoes of Japan in a rough n’ tumble bushwhacking world:

Too much praise raises expectation and puts the high achiever under insufferable pressure — and Australians hate being pressured.

This tortured form of modesty is greatly respected by most Australians and if it is not observed by the successful, they will rapdily fall victim to the “tall poppy syndrome.” Australians are totally cynical of people in power or with too much wealth; they respect the little person, the “battler”, rather than the winner.

The conundrum is the many reports that plutocrats like Kerry Packer were “widely respected” and the evidence that dysfunctional Murdoch clan continues to avoid poppy-whackers, suffering more from self-inflicted sibling rivalries (similar to the Pritzker battles over the Hyatt fortune here in the US).

So, at the end of the day, we are left wondering what lasting constraints cultural norms play in today’s Flat World. If Horie-san had hightailed it to Texas and the Stepford Wives relocated to Roppongi Hills everyone might have lived happily ever after.

How about you? Are you culturally suited to the time and place you find yourself in?

4 Comments so far
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I think that Lewis is right in his insights of Japanese culture but I also think that much of what he is teaching (and I have read all of his books) is changing with the newer generations.
I have had students of many different cultures in my Stanford CS classes and I have used Lewis’ cultural models.

While many of my students agreed that fundamentally Lewis was on the right track, they thought cultural patterns are not as clear cut any more as they had been.

The younger generation – often educated abroad – is evolving (possibly in the direction of a US model?) and cannot be categorized in the same ways it was before.

Are all Asians concerned about group welfare first and do they really suffer if they are set apart individually and recognized?
Not according to the’30 something’ whom I asked.

They agree many primary, cultural attitudes have not changed, but the layers on top of them are changing – the young professionals are adapting to different pressures and presences in their lives so our models and theories have to adapt to changes, something I have not seen in the cross cultural literature – however, I have not read books that have come out in 2006.

Many studies still quote and rely on Geert Hofstede, whose large IBM study was done 30 years +(1967-1973) ago. His approach is still very valuable, but I think that there is more to looking at cultural behaviors nowadays than applying models and seeing how people fit into them.
But, that discussion is at another time.

Fascinating, well written, well researched piece Ian. Enjoyed it!

Writing on this topic in the January 16, 2008 Weekend FT columnist Chrystia Freeland detects changes in the American attitudes to “tall poppies”:

One casualty of this bi-partisan, recession-inspired suspicion of the super-rich could be the man a lot of Wall Street is rooting for – even though he has yet to throw his hat into the ring. Gotham mayor – and self-made billionaire – Mike Bloomberg has been flirting with an independent bid for the White House for months. By and large, New Yorkers have been indulgent, but this week brought a chorus of scoldings, some of them directly aimed at his extraordinary fortune.

The leftwing Village Voice was the most shrill, depicting an imagined campaign badge with the tagline “Rich guy for president”. Even the upmarket New Yorker, published by the luxury-loving house of Condé Nast, observed sharply that “if Bloomberg feels like it, he can put a presidential run on his Amex card”. This was not meant as a compliment. The essay, written by New Yorker editor David Remnick himself, concluded with the admonition: “A man with Bloomberg’s sense of noblesse oblige should know there is something unseemly about waltzing into the presidential race, or even hinting at it, for no reason more compelling than that he can afford to pay the bill without flinching.”

If you live in a “tall poppy syndrome” country, this resentment of the billionaire class may seem unremarkable to you. But it is a little surprising in post-war, or at least post-1960s, America. As one fund manager (a Barack Obama supporter) told me recently, the great thing about America for him is that if you are rich, people hope to emulate you. In his native Europe, he felt, the default attitude was resentment. Consider Donald Trump, who has built new a career as a media celebrity by assuming the persona of an obnoxious yet somehow admirable billionaire. Now, though, the mood is changing.

this idea sucks
you cant live without personality

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