The Conformist Culture of Japan Cured My Stubbornness

In Japan, there is an expression – The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.

Living in Japan, my stubborn and contrary nature often made me the nail sticking up. After getting whacked, Japan taught me the important lesson of being less disagreeable and stubborn. I am so grateful for that lesson!


My default answer is “no.”

When asked a question, my default is generally to say “no.”  K learned this early when we were dating. When he finally earned a “yes,” he knew it was a big deal.


Most of the times when I say “no”, I am being pointlessly stubborn. I resist simply for the sake of resisting. If you tell me – Do this! – I will refuse. The harder you push me, the harder that I will refuse, like a stubborn Chinese trap. My attitude will become – Just try to make me! – and I will grit my teeth against you.

Swear Jessy! I dare you to swear.


My stubborn personality blossomed in high school. I recall in particular an experience related to my clean and proper language.

Even now, I don’t swear much. But my clean language is less noticeable in professional  settings. In high school, my conspicuously clean language struck many of my friends. Do you ever swear? They asked. CAN you swear?


One summer between junior year and senior year, I stayed for two months at Brown University, as part of a program where high schoolers take college summer classes. Another girl in the program announced that it was her mission to make me swear. Hearing that, of course, it became my mission to never let her hear me swear.

She cajoled and whined and pestered me for weeks. I stood my ground.

Looking back, I am embarrassed. My stubborn pride made me act ridiculously. I mean, it isn’t like I was morally opposed to swearing or even that I started out with a strong stance on swearing. But as soon as she started pushing me, my stubborn prideful contrary nature kicked in and I would not back down.

My high school self. I might be smiling… But don’t try to tell me what to do!

Nearing the end of the program, she had nearly exhausted herself and I felt that I might “win” the argument (whatever that means). To sweeten my victory, I waited until I was in the company of other people who knew about our battle. Just as she stepped outside the room, I found a moment in the conversation to call someone a “bastard.” Not terribly profane but strong enough. Once she returned, the other students informed her that I used a swear word but she missed it.

I never said another profane word for the rest of the summer, and felt at the end that I had beaten her. I am ashamed of my behavior. There was really no reason to be so pigheaded about it.

Another random picture of me from that summer.

I am still learning my lesson…Japan has helped!

I wish I could say that I have matured from that point. I wish I could say that I no longer disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. But… I think that I am still on my way to learning that lesson. Unexpectedly my experiences in Japan have played a key role in cracking the hard nut of my stubbornness.


(Don’t you just love all the mixed metaphors in this post?)

The Japanese culture did not look kindly on my disagreeableness.

In Japan, standing out is often punished. It isn’t that people necessarily want to conform and be exactly the same as others. Instead, I found that in Japan, following the rules and abiding by expectations helps you avoid a lot of negative consequences.


Contrast to the United States where “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Children in the U.S. are encouraged to be different, to follow their passions, to not let pressure from society or peers dictate their decisions. I grew up in that cultural environment and my stubborn willful nature grew naturally.

Living in Japan, I got whacked quite a few times.

I tried to do things my own way, and I got pushed down time after time. That might sound like a bad experience but it was one that I really appreciate. Japan helped curb my stubborn, disagreeable personality.

Here are a few of my experiences where I was the nail that stuck up and got pounded down (and the important lessons I learned).


#1 In Japanese class – agree first; (maybe) disagree later.

I have a habit of starting sentences by saying, “No…” and then voicing my own opinion or perspective. In Japanese class, this got me in trouble.

As I progressed through Japanese classes in college, we reached the level where our language classes became informal debates. We would be presented with reading material and a discussion question. Then we would have to formulate our thoughts in Japanese and debate among ourselves.


People in the class would often have differing opinions. In my third year Japanese class, my professor warned me to be less argumentative in class.

I did not feel that I had been argumentative but she told me that I should not immediately respond by forcefully stating my own opinion. My professor gave me new guidelines for group discussions.

  1. Summarize the other person’s point.
  2. Acknowledge some worthy point within their argument.
  3. Maybe consider gently presenting my own point.

I changed my behavior in class but internally I resisted my professor’s correction. Why did I have to superficially agree with others’ points??


Now I am so glad that she took the time to guide me. I am embarrassed I needed to be explicitly taught that lesson. My professor showed me that I should pause and take a moment to acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint. It made me more aware of how to be a good listener, not only in Japanese class but to my friends outside class too.

#2 If try to go your own way and don’t follow the crowd, you’ll get lost.

My contrary disagreeable nature is so deeply ingrained it even appears in how I walk and navigate my world.

When I get off most forms of transportation (especially public transportation) I will walk in the opposite direction of everyone else.


Why do I do this? I cannot explain it in words. I did not even realize that I was doing it until I moved to Japan. In Japan, I kept finding myself fighting against a wall of people as I walked towards one end of the platform only to discover that it was a dead end.

Now that I am aware of it, my pattern is laughable, even to myself. Put me in any airport, and I will quickly find my way to the most random and out of the way corner without any idea of how I ended up there.

Where is everyone…

Just last week, I visited Macy’s in Chicago. It is a beautiful historic building. I entered and headed downstairs to the food section. I ended up in a dark, concrete set of emergency stairs. The stairs took me down but later I stumbled upon the beautiful grand stairs from the first floor to the basement. How did I miss the grand main stairs? Who knows… Probably everyone was heading in that direction and so I unconsciously went the opposite way.



In Japan, my walking-in-the-other-direction habit is really a problem because walking against the crowd is hard. In some cases, the wall of people is so strong that it is not even really possible to walk in the opposite direction.

Little feet in Japan show me the way!

Walking with the crowd is easier. PLUS it turns out that if most people are going one way, that is probably because it is the way to go. I learned that sometimes the majority opinion is the right opinion. SHOCK. Now I consciously follow the crowd in Japan and also when I travel to new cities in the U.S. This change in my behavior has done wonders for my navigation! I get lost much less these days.

Follow the leader!

#3 No need to try to be different. Just get the popular one.

Anywhere – in the U.S., in Japan, and I am sure in other countries – there are popular trends that people follow. Last time I visited my hip and cool brother (Hi, brother!) in Brooklyn, New York, I asked him what the current trends were. Apparently the current trends in New York were the color pink and beards.


But I never liked going along with the trends. I was happiest if I never say anyone wearing the same clothes as me. When big blockbuster movies come out, I resist going simply because I know that those movies will be popular. If everyone liked a new television, I pointedly avoided watching it. (Seriously why I am so stupidly stubborn like this… I’m working on it.)

In short – If something is popular, I will avoid it.

Then I encountered a totally new phenomenon in Japan. Stores and restaurants in Japan will actually label the most popular choice. Like a bag will have a star sticker saying “#1 Most Popular” or particular items on the menu will be marked “Popular.”

Adorable Pumpkin Donuts – Only 2nd most popular at the shop (I bought one anyway!)

I started to order and purchase the items marked as popular, simply because with my limited Japanese it made things easier. And I began to enjoy it! I would ask at a restaurant, “Which is the popular one?” and I would happily order it. Turns out that what other people like is pretty yummy and good.

Pretty yummy!

#4 In Japan, “no” means “no.”

Japan was one of the first places where I really could NOT wheedle and negotiate my way to something better.

I arrived to Japan from Williams College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. There were requirements at Williams but pretty much everything was up for negotiation if you talked to the right person and made your case convincingly.

Please! Pretty please…? 🙂

Sometimes I think the students drove the professors crazy. Students just would not give up. One beleaguered art history professor announced at the beginning of class, that there was simply no way that students could switch to other section times. “I know many of you will not give up and will keep asking even if I say that,” she said.

With exasperation the professor added, “A terrier at the heels is less tenacious than you Williams students!”P1000139.JPG

In college, I talked my way into closed classes. I convinced a department to revise their requirements for the major just for me. I convinced librarians to purchase books that I wanted to read and to get extra copies of textbooks for my classes.

Then I got to Japan and I ran into the brick wall of the “no.” When people in Japan say, “no, that is against our policy,” it really truly seriously means no (almost all of the time). You have no choice but to accept the conditions as presented to you.

“No Entry” means no entry.

My mom experienced this herself when she visited me in Japan.

During that trip, my parents bought me a toaster oven. The oven came wrapped in string with a green plastic handle to carry it home. My mom really liked the design of that green handle. Since my parents were planning to bring home several boxes of gifts, my mom wanted to get a second green handle. I warned her that she probably would not be able to get one without making a purchase. She said she would try anyway. So while I was at work, my mom visited the shop to try to get another green handle.

I returned home and she looked defeated. The shop refused to give her a second handle.

First, she asked for one for free. NO. Then she said if she could buy one. NO. The only way she could get a second handle was if she bought an item from the store that was approved to go home with a handle. In other words, she would have to purchase a second toaster oven to get another handle.

No victory in the green handle saga but still looking happy!

On my way to overcoming my own stubbornness.

I think the strict policies of Japan were one of the most important factor that finally broke my stubbornness. I was like a little kid throwing a tantrum. No matter how much I screamed or kicked my legs, the person calmly kept saying, “no.” Until I finally realized that the one being ridiculous and unreasonable was me.

I hope that my stubborn nature has finally cracked. I want to be someone who says “yes.” I want to appreciate other people’s opinions and be a better listener. I want to be able to accept the policies set before me and not try to argue every point. I thank Japan for harshly disciplining me. I still have a long way to go but at least I started!


To my dear reader, leave any stories, comments, or questions below. 🙂


Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.


6 thoughts on “The Conformist Culture of Japan Cured My Stubbornness

  1. Charles Posey says:

    Jesse: Are you familiar with the linguist, Debra Tannen. She has looked at the way people talk in Japan and other cultures as a window into their cultural psychology, though she may not use that word.This article reminds me of her book, Talking 9 to 5 about conversational styles in the workplace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Janet says:

    Great stories and descriptions of conforming versus not in Japan! Do you mind if I share your blog musings in my summer class next week? I’m teaching social norms and have a session on cultural norms that I would love to show this in. — Janet

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J LeClair says:

      Hi Janet, Thanks for reading! You are more than welcome to share my blog. It would be an honor for me. If you need any other materials or clarifications from me, just let me know. Thanks, Jessy


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