頑張る /ganbaru/ : to persevere; to persist; to keep at it; to hang on; to hold out; to do one’s best
Before moving to Japan and through my first months there, ganbatte (do your best) was a harmless exhortation I would throw at fellow Japanese students or utter to myself when facing a new challenge. Its meaning was completely positive to me, filled with the best intentions to support others or push myself to work hard.
It was only many months later, when my understanding of Japanese language and culture was far more advanced, that my perspective started to change slowly.
At the time I was going to a Japanese language school in the weekdays and juggling two jobs, and my total free time amounted to two afternoons. I had to use that time to study, but I also needed to rest and relax. I started feeling guilty every time I went for a walk or met a friend, and feeling like I was missing out every time I stayed in to do my homework. Soon enough I lost my sleep and started having anxiety attacks.
People noticing black circles under my eyes could only offer a mindless ganbatte ne!, so I kept doing my best and beyond. I had internalised that expression and I kept repeating it to myself over and over, like a mantra. Ganbatte, just a bit more.
Ganbaru in Japan isn’t only to do your best, but it extends beyond that. You have to stoically endure whatever comes your way, put up with it, because that is what’s expected of you.
The word is formed by two kanji. The first 頑 (gan) indicates stubborness, firmness and obstination. 張る (haru) has several nuances and carries the concepts of put up, stretched, spread.
It’s tied to the term 我慢 gaman, meaning patience, endurance, self-control, self-denial.
Whilst these terms are often considered positive, it’s easy to see how harmful they can become when taken too far.
In Japanese companies long hours of overtime are the norm. This causes the tragic phenomenon of 過労死 (karoshi), death from overwork, which reportedly is a risk for a fifth of Japanese workforce.
The same mindset, however, is the reason behind Japan’s resilience and the strenght of its social fabric even in the face of natural disasters.
It took me a long time to find the right balance. It took months of dull stubborness, when waking up was a struggle and depression was eating pieces of my life. It took a friend who finally told me 諦めてもいいよ！ akiramete mo ii yo!, it is ok to give up sometimes, when you can’t take it anymore. I asked my employer to have Saturdays off. It sounds like a small thing, but that’s when I started to breath again – and to do my best, for real.
I had to immerse myself in Japanese culture and to learn the many nuances of its language to understand all the implications hiding behind the ubiquitous concept of ganbatte. In the process, I learned a lot about myself too, and I became kinder and more understanding towards my own weaknesses.
I still say ganbatte to myself, but in a much softer voice now.