This article is from the American misconceptions about Japan FAQ, by Tanaka Tomoyuki firstname.lastname@example.org with numerous contributions by others.
one way this notion of "completely different (diametric opposite)"
is reinforced is through TV shows, such as "Kung Fu". this popular
TV show has been spreading the following message to Americans, young
and old, for decades:
Chinese (and all other Asians) are completely different from
Americans and inscrutable, that Asians operate under some
kind of weird, exotic "Oriental logic" (symbolized by the
cheap, fortune-cookie riddles used in the show) that
reasonable, civilized Westerners can NEVER hope to understand.
another way this notion of "completely different (diametric opposite)"
is reinforced is by citing proverbs. a couples of Americans
studying Japanese have told me the following: (they told me exactly
the same thing.)
--- in Japan people say, "deru kugi ha utareru".
literally, "the nail that sticks out is hammered down."
it means: "don't do anything different from the others;
if you do, you'll be punished."
--- in the USA people say, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
it means, "if you complain and make noise, you'll be noticed,
get attention (and thus rewarded)."
--- see how COMPLETELY opposite that is?
Edwin O. Reischauer (famous Harvard Japanologist, ambassador to
Japan during the 1960s) writes:
Whereas the American may seek to emphasize his independence and
originality, the Japanese will do the reverse. As the old
Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks out gets banged
down. A personality type that in the United States might seem
merely bluff or forceful but still normal is defined in Japan as
a neurotic state. Cooperativeness, reasonableness, and
understanding of others are the virtues most admired, not
personal drive, forcefulness, and individual self-assertion.
in Edwin O. Reischauer, "The Japanese" (1977) Page 135
and "The Japanese Today" (1995) Page 136
well, it's true that those maxims exist in the two cultures. but
the bigger truth is that since both peoples are similarly
conservative, the same kind of maxims abound in both cultures. in
both cultures there are maxims that encourage boldness, as well as
those that recommend conformity.
in Japan there are many proverbs and maxims that encourage people to
be bold, different, and independent.
--- "atatte kudakero"
literally, "go collide and smash into pieces."
it means, "even if you're not sure, go ahead and try it."
like the American expression, "go for broke".
--- "gyuubi to naru yori keitou to nare"
literally, "rather than be a cow-tail, be a chicken-head."
American equivalent: "I'd rather be a big fish in a small
pond than a small fish in a big pond."
--- "i no naka no kawazu"
literally, "a frog in a well".
this and the following both mean the same thing:
"don't be content in your small world; go and explore."
--- "oyama no taishou"
literally, "king of a (small) mountain"
--- "anzuru yori umu ga yasusi"
literally, "easier to actually give birth than as anticipated."
it means, "it's not as hard as you think.", commonly
said in the USA.
--- "kawaii ko ni ha tabi wo saseyo"
literally, "if you love your child, let it travel alone",
for it fosters independence.
--- "shounen yo, taisi wo idake" or "booizu bii anbishasu"
from "Boys, be ambitious!". an American professor named
Clark said this to his Japanese students in Hokkaido early
in the USA there are some expressions and maxims that recommend
people to be conformist and quiet.
--- "stick out like a sore thumb"
(an expression meaning "to stand out and draw attention";
usually used negatively)
--- "When in Rome do as the Romans do."
(Japanese equivalent: "gou ni itte ha gou ni sitagae")
--- "rock the boat" (usually negative)
--- "make waves" (usually negative, sometimes positive)
--- "go against the current" (usually negative)
--- "silence is golden."
--- "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
("mizaru, iwazaru, kikazaru")
--- "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
far from what Reischauer and others are trying to show, the proverbs
and expressions in the two cultures strike me with the many
parallels and similarities more than the few differences.