the principle of gaman

by judyko

Recently, I’ve been perusing Lapham’s Quarterly The City and wondering about the stories of peoples lives in different cities and places and times. My friend Keiko has been working abroad in Japan for the past few weeks. Here are her observations and some more thoughts to ponder:

Culture of “gaman” is the opposite of woe is me

An American who lived in Japan for 20+ years engaging in conversations with over 12,000 Japanese people describes the concept of Gaman.

“One of the character qualities that Japanese culture encourages and builds into it citizens is something called “gaman”. It can mean slightly different things, but it essentially means to practice tolerance in the face of hardship rather than to complain, act out, or be confrontational. The manner in which this manifests in life here is that (the vast majority of) people tend to be patient with small problems rather than make an issue of them, and they will put up with considerable difficulties rather than walk away or quit. It’s one of those things that many foreign folks don’t notice right away, but often they benefit from it. You may do a myriad of things that annoy your neighbors, but many of them may choose to simply “endure” the difficulty rather than complain. Many foreigners also fail to practice “gaman” themselves and alienate Japanese people who feel that no reasonable person would complain about the trivialities that foreign folks do. I will miss the culture of “gaman” and the way in which it encourages patience and cooperation rather than petty complaining and confrontation.”

– Endure, rather than complain.

This is something I can really relate to and now understand. Having grown up in the US, I believed that all people in this world complain a lot, and about every little thing. But being in Japan, I can see the stark difference of people just being patient and dealing with things, instead of yelling and complaining, singing from the rooftops, “woe is me.” You might say, well Japanese people are just more passive or submissive, assuming these people just do as their told, but then you’d be missing the point entirely. There is a great deal of “gaman” that is being practiced.

From commuting every day on an overcrowded subway, to the late, late nights at work, you’d have to approach life with a great dose of “gaman” to survive here. It’s clearly a survival tactic. And even though I didn’t grow up in Japan, having Japanese parents who constantly used the words, “gaman” and embodied the culture of “gaman” I’m not surprised to know there is a great deal of “gaman” in my actions and the way I approach life. And it’s something I’ve also seen in many of my Japanese and Japanese American friends.

Insights from Keiko. Domo arigato!

another look at gaman