“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
Many years ago I took a number of Japanese visitors to an event in the United States where the performers on stage tried to recruit volunteers from the audience to participate in the action. Everyone around us eagerly thrust their hands into the air begging to be chosen, but my Japanese guests shrunk back, doing their best to become invisible. I was slightly amused as I witnessed this contrast in reactions and obvious clash of cultures. My Japanese friends were equally puzzled by the circumstances and later asked me, “Why are Americans so eager to rush on the stage and make fools of themselves?” To which I casually replied, “It’s the American way!” While my answer was rather shallow and primarily intended to draw laughter, it did partially capture the vast differences that often separate us as different cultures defined by different values.
The Japanese have a famous proverb that goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered in” *(出る釘は打たれる), which succinctly captures the previously described scenario. Due to Japan’s centuries of intentional isolation as an island nation and its mono-ethnic makeup, diversity is generally not encouraged. This serves as a stark contrast to the melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups that typically characterizes the United States, where individuality and the expression of it is considered a high value. However, in Japan, deviance from the norm is often met with resistance, like a protruding nail that is routinely hammered in so it will match the others. Group mentality and the pressure to “fit in” encourages conformity on many levels in Japan, so few are willing to face criticism and risk being singled out. This mindset can be a powerful tool to mobilize effort and energy into a cohesive direction for a particular objective, but it has the drawback of shutting down independent thought and action that sometimes might lead to better outcomes.
Of course, there are exceptions to this trend and nowhere is this more evident than the variety of street fashions in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, where young people express their individuality through unusual clothing and makeup combinations. In addition, some public figures may shun conformity in order to achieve success and are ironically admired for their boldness and innovation. But among the general masses, the desire for safety and tranquility continues to drive responses and few are willing to take the risks that come from being a nail that sticks out.
Jesus, however, essentially called His followers to be that protruding nail. While this presents unique challenges for Japanese believers seeking to live out their faith in a non-Christian culture, it is a problem that all true followers of Christ must wrestle with as the Kingdom of God inevitably clashes with the kingdoms of this world. As the people of God, we are to be actively engaged in a spiritual battle where our good deeds and testimony bear witness to the greatness and mercies of God to others around us. This way of life, of course, leaves little room for shrinking back into a self-protective mode for fear of criticism or rejection. Our light must shine as we become protruding nails within the cultural context where God has uniquely placed us. After all, the ultimate hammer resides in God’s hand and it is His judgment that matters in light of eternity.
* The proverb originally stated, “The stake that sticks out gets pounded,” which doesn’t significantly change the current nuance.