The Nail That Sticks Out

David Taylor

David Taylor is the creator of the Forever Foreign Podcast. He's been a full-time liver and Part-time lover of Japan for... possibly too long at this point.
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DURING ENGLISH lessons, the grade 5A classroom became a huge game of whack-a-mole, this one involving misbehaving students rather than subterranean mammals. Whacking the children wasn’t actually allowed, but I could dream. I could dream a very specific dream where I did have a large mallet and I was allowed to violently swing it in the direction of student’s heads. In this dream, my mouth frothed at the corners of a wide smile as I pranced among the little shitheads while they cowered in terror. But that was just a dream.

Instead of that dream, on a humid day in July I walked from desk to desk, pleading rather than whacking. I begged one pair of students to stop talking before kneeling next to a different kid who seemed to be starting a collection of pencils that he’d stolen from around the room. With a promise that he would return the pencils after getting one from every pencil case, I rushed over to the other side where another kid was calmly ripping up his own worksheet. He did it with such care that I had to think back to the instructions the kids had been given. Were they supposed to destroy their own papers? No, I decided. They were not.

While commuting between desks I silently glared at the Japanese English teacher who was explaining the next activity. I would’ve glared at the homeroom teacher, too, but he’d bolted from the room the moment we showed up. For him, English class was a chance to escape for 45 minutes. Really, I couldn’t blame him.

I was glaring because as an ALT I was supposed to be the Assistant Language Teacher, not the Assistant Language Tyrant. I was supposed to be the friendly foreigner that all of the students cherished. The good time Charlie that they invited to join a round of soccer at recess and cheered for when he showed up to eat with them at noon. Instead, when that particular class came up on the rotating lunch schedule I would conveniently forget to check, eating in the staffroom instead. I would’ve been all too happy to eat in the bathroom by myself if necessary.

Discipline was simply never my forte; there were footprints all over me highlighting that fact. There was also a stipulation in my contract stating that I was to leave classroom management to the Japanese teachers. It was the one and only thing that I truly loved about that deal because – from my point of view – it meant that I had carte-blanche to coast for the entire year, focusing on befriending all of the students rather than educating them. But that all turned out to be a filthy lie.

When the conversation portion of that day’s lesson began and students stood up from their chairs my shoulders tensed as I prepared for the inevitable. The kids were supposed to go around asking each other about the things they could do.

Photo by Kenny Eliason

It should have been reasonable to expect the question ‘Can you play soccer?’ to lead to either ‘Yes I can’ or ‘No I can’t’. ‘Can you play piano?’ shouldn’t have prompted anything too surprising either, so I had a hunch that something was amiss when I heard one student enthusiastically saying “MANY MANY BIG PEHNIS.”

I looked to the Japanese teacher, but she was on the other side of the room putting a different student-shaped fire out. With a roll of my eyes I walked up to little Kenji and did the bare minimum to get him focused. I happened to know that he played basketball almost every day at recess, so I figured it wouldn’t be hard to get him on track.

“Alright Kenji, let’s try this. Can you play basketball?” I asked.

“Many many big pehnis,” he told me. His voice hadn’t gone down in volume much and he’d added an unfortunate gesture, holding his hands wide out in front of his face.

“Let’s try again. Can you play basketball?”

“Many many big pehnis!” he said with passion, as if he was simply being misunderstood. As if he only needed to change the cadence or annunciate more in order for me to see the shafts floating around my head.

“Can. You. Play. Basketball?”

His next answer was similar to the previous ones, leading me to wonder if indeed there was some cornucopia of phalluses that I wasn’t seeing. I turned this way and that, looking around the room, but all I saw were the usual dickheads.

Heaving a sigh, I admitted defeat, throwing English out the window altogether. For the next 3 minutes we spoke about video games exclusively in Japanese. It was the only thing he was really happy to talk about with me, probably because I was the only adult who was willing to listen.

You see, Kenji wanted to be a YouTuber, something that was simply unacceptable for an 11-year-old to dream of in Japan. By the 5th grade, people were expected to wake up. They’d already been training at sitting in a desk for long stretches of time, and soon they would learn to pretend they’re busier than they really are by muttering to themselves as they work and by jogging out of the staffroom with a mildly agitated look on their face.

It wasn’t hard to imagine students graduating elementary school with their parents proudly standing to the side at the ceremony. “I was starting to think my little one was never going to get the hang of Microsoft Excel,” one proud father would say as he dabbed at a single tear. “But he did it. He really makes a beautiful spreadsheet now.”

In other words, kids in Japan should be aspiring to appropriate, predictable levels of ambition. That includes every job title from bus driver to doctor. Even saying that you want to be a business man – possibly the most vague job description in the world – is fine. ‘YouTuber’, however, is not on that list.

I’d heard Kenji’s unrealistic dreams for the future brought up countless times among the Japanese teachers in casual conversation and even as the subject of staff meetings. For me, it was fun watching him get excited about playing video games. For his teachers, however, it was a notion that must be extinguished.

That was only the start of his problems, though. It seemed like there was a new Kenji-related issue being discussed every week. Kenji dyed his hair. Kenji got a piercing. Kenji didn’t do his job during cleaning time. And around every corner there was someone waiting to badger him. It reminded me of a saying in Japan: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Whether or not he knew what was good for him, it seemed that Kenji wasn’t going to let himself be that nail.

I’ve taught at more than a dozen elementary and junior high schools in this country. At almost all of them you’ll find at least one Kenji, albeit not usually to his extreme.

The first time I ever visited Japan I got a crash course on the fringes of Japanese society when my friend Garrett and I went to Harajuku. There were several notable sight-seeing spots nearby, but we were most excited for what was just outside the subway station exit on the street corner.

One article referred to the area as a place where Tokyo’s outcasts gathered. A place where they could all avoid the falling hammers and be freaks together. Reading that made me think of the X-Men shooting lasers out of their eyes and drawing blades from between their knuckles. If the similarities didn’t stop at strange outfits and hairstyles I thought I might need to start thinking about safety measures on our little excursion. I was only so worried though. Knowing how lovely Japanese people had been up until that point, even the fringes of society must’ve been gracious. Worst case scenario, they would be as rude as me.

I wasn’t disappointed as we exited the subway station stairwell and stepped into a street full of cartoon characters. There were people of all shapes and sizes gathered around, some wearing colorful makeup and pointy ears, others putting their effort toward more of a Matrix look. All of them lounged casually in one area not far from the subway station exit.

Pointing from afar at a girl who looked an awful lot like some kind of 21st century cyber-witch, I asked Garrett, “Can you take my picture with her? I’ll stand far behind and when I’m positioned properly you snap it.”

“Why don’t you just ask her for a photo?”

“Ask her for a photo?” I looked over at the girl, shocked by the question. She wore a pink skirt and matching blouse with puffy short sleeves and her hair was in pigtails. Covering her face was a frightening black mask (a lot more frightening in pre-covid times). “You don’t just ask people like that for a photo.”

Image by Laurentiu

Garrett rolled his eyes as I stealthily made my way around the crowd, positioning myself behind the girl and leaving several meters of space so that she wouldn’t suspect me of any photo thievery. When I was in a good spot he snapped the picture. After receiving the thumbs up, I ran back to Garrett’s side to check the photo. There in the foreground was the girl in her gaudy costume looking casually in a different direction. Timidly holding up a peace sign about four meters behind her was a nerdy white kid from Edmonton, too terrified to take a step closer.

After spending a little more time examining the situation it became clear that these people weren’t all that dangerous, let alone exciting. They were just teenagers full of angst who hung out at that exact spot because it was their way of standing out and sticking it to the man. As it turns out, dressing up in costumes is the Japanese equivalent of partying and doing drugs.

The girl in pink’s parents must’ve been sitting at some dinner table with one empty seat in Tokyo’s suburbs, lamenting their child slipping further into a world of excessive eye liner and frilly fabrics. “Why is our little Kumiko throwing her life away? Why?” the mother would ask the father.

“I just don’t know,” he would say as he slammed his fist on the table hard enough to express his frustration, but not so hard as to spill any of the Kikkoman soy sauce. “I still remember when our baby girl was sitting in our living room watching Hamtaro. Now she’s on a street corner pretending to be Hamtaro. Soon she’ll be speaking like a hamster, and you know what happens to women who pretend to speak like hamsters.”


“They never get married or have kids,” the father would say forlornly, shaking his head. Not being able to stand the thought, the mother would faint face-first into her mouth-watering, miso-glazed mackerel, wasting a perfectly good fish.

Photo by Akira Deng

When I think about the kids on that street corner in Harajuku I can’t help but compare it to Edmonton. Back home, if someone wants to dress like a clown they do what any self-respecting carnie does and show up for social studies class on Monday morning with a honkable rubber nose and a curly red wig. Having to crane my neck around someone’s hairstyle to get a better understanding of the First World War’s truce dynamics wasn’t so uncommon, after all.

And if you want to die your hair you can feel free to do so without being harassed. Blonde, blue, flamingo, anything goes! If your hair just happens to naturally be that color, that’s fine too. But in Japan, if you’re born with anything other than black hair there’s a chance that you’ll be told to die it. Purposely changing your hair color might as well be a criminal offence.

At the first Junior High School I ever taught at there was a group of three kids who had committed to life on the outside. Two of them dyed their hair a sort of copper color and one of those two had a mullet on top of that, both of which are pretty popular in Japan. I’m not sure which hairstyle trend is the more perplexing of the two, but I for one was happy to see mullets making a comeback in 2015.

Having nothing to do with baseball or the United States of America, each of these three kids were given the title “yankee”, a Japanese term used to describe the sort of student who dyes their hair and stays home from school more often than not. Even when they did show up they mostly just lounged around the hallways or outside the teacher’s office, searching for some form of entertainment.

One day, I got up from my desk and stepped outside to see them chatting with a coworker who waved me over. The leader of the gang was in his 3rd year of junior high school, a beefy kid with a deep voice and an air of being at ease that would’ve led me to peg him firmly at thirty years old if we’d been in any other setting.

He was around the same height as me – taller than most Japanese men – and stood there, arms crossed as he eyed me up and down. I’ve often come across the phrase “barrel-chested” in the many fantasy novels I’ve read, not really able to picture what it meant, but as I set eyes on this goliath pretending to be a 14-year-old I finally understood.

As he examined the both of us, the math teacher had a bit of inspiration. “You two should arm wrestle,” he said. Apparently they’d been talking about it beforehand.

I’m not a particularly big person in Canada at 5 foot 11 and 185 pounds, but I guess that makes me large by Japanese standards. Because of this as well as what I’ve been told is a permanent ‘smug look’ on my face, I frequently get confused for someone who enjoys arm wrestling; and each time I’m challenged to a match I feel pressured to oblige.

I once got dragged into a match at a bar by a stranger who made this mistake. He hadn’t spoken to me at all until that point in the night, so I found it a little rude that he was challenging me. He even had the audacity to ask if I wanted to put money on it, so I told him that if I had to bet on someone I’d like to put my money on him. That was supposedly against some rule, so I declined to place any bets at all.

When I inevitably lost, my then girlfriend got mad at me for not paying up which, of course, turned into a big fight. I found myself in the insane position of heatedly asking everyone in the bar – foreigners and Japanese alike – why on earth I would put money on myself when I knew I was going to lose.

When I was a few years older but still similarly terrible at this stupid game, I was challenged by one of the old elementary school principals that I’d been drinking with at the time. A man in his 60s who was short and gangly. You know, a cross-country runner type of build. He was so drunk that later in the night he would nearly lose his teeth doing a face plant while attempting the daring feet of lighting a cigarette.

Finally, I thought. Someone that I can actually beat challenges me.

I lined up with confidence, but from the very beginning it was a struggle. We teetered back and forth, and as I made a push for victory I felt two quick pops in my elbow, followed by a sharp pain.

I quickly made the decision to fight through it, telling myself that I had to beat this shit-faced geezer. In the end, neither of us had what it took to finish the other off. The contest ended in a feeble draw, neither of us having the power to put our opponent away.

The next morning I told my wife that I’d broken a bone arm wrestling with a man over 60. She took one look and told me that it wasn’t the case, but I didn’t want to believe her. How else could I explain losing to a comatose twig who was about to start earning pension payments?

Naturally, when I lined up with the alleged 14-year-old at the junior high school, I lost.

We got to talking afterward and I was surprised to see the three kids politely ask about me and actually listen when I replied. After a while, the conversation devolved into me answering their questions about different dirty words in English. I taught them how to say poop and pee, but when I drew the line at explaining the delicate nuance to the word “fuck” they lost interest. The three of them went off down the hallway, completely untethered.

I asked the math teacher, “Don’t they need to go to class?”

He shrugged. “They’re Yankees. We’d love it if they went to class, but they refuse. Having them show up to school at all is a win.”

Every school is a little bit different, but I’ve noticed from my own experience, as well as the experience of my fellow English teachers, that by the time the student gets to junior high school the teachers tend to take their hands off the reigns of the more persistent kids a little bit, letting them make their own poor choices. If the student shows a hint of potential malleability, though, they’ll be twisted toward the norm. I got the feeling that unless the three kids at that particular school did something awful, they were mostly an afterthought. Doing something good was up to them.

When the elementary school student, Kenji, moved on to grade 6 the teachers at his school still hadn’t given up on him. However, we were all beginning to doubt whether he could forget about his YouTube prospects and focus on ‘real life’ – whatever that meant.

If acting out in class was his only problem that would’ve been alright, but he was starting to miss school pretty often on top of that. I was thrilled about it. After the 5th graders became 6th graders the classes were shuffled, and the other students were mostly manageable in his half of the grade. When Kenji was absent, things were almost normal.

Photo by DuoNguyen

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder where he was going to end up. Kenji had a good brain, but there were other issues he was dealing with that weren’t working in his favor, leaving him in danger of being left behind as a result. It was too easy to see him moving on to junior high school, only to have his teachers say “Having him show up at all is a win.”

Then, in the last quarter of the year something miraculous happened. Kenji started coming to every single class. Of course, it was a bittersweet revelation for me since I was guaranteed to see him once or twice a week, but the first time I saw him after he’d decided to put his best foot forward I realized that something had changed. He sat up straight as an arrow in his seat and didn’t make a peep unless he was asked to. His uniform was buttoned straight to the collar and the piercing was gone from his ear. When I made a funny face at him as I walked past he gave me a polite, yet patronizing smile, as if to suggest I needed to grow up. I’d never seen such a dramatic change outside of One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.

The topic we were working on in English class at the time was ‘What do you want to be?’ Walking around the room, I helped the kids find English words for their profession of choice. I was prepared to tell Kenji that ‘YouTuber’ is the same in English as it is in Japanese, but he gave me a different word which I didn’t know at the time. After looking it up, I realized that he now wanted to be a psychiatrist.

An interesting choice, I thought. Definitely more mainstream than ‘YouTuber’, but not to the point of being mundane. Still, it added to the mystery of Kenji’s wild 180.

As far as I knew, there was no medical intervention, and when I asked a few teachers if they knew what happened to the boy, most of them seemed as perplexed as me. None of them knew how to explain it.

And how could they? How do you tell a Canadian that after years of trying to stifle an 11-year-old’s personality there was finally something to show for it? For better or for worse, he was another nail flush against the wood.

Can’t get enough? Read all about my first time in Japan next!

Tired of the cringe and looking for tips on living in Japan? Learn all about how easy it is to move to Japan with no Japanese here. (But seriously, learn Japanese because it’s fun)