Friday, 17 June 2016

The Japanese Spirit of Gaman - Suffering in Silence

Two years ago I was young and full of hope. I had big plans for my life. Go to Japan and learn Japanese. See everything there is to see. Then write it all down and post once a month. Whats so hard about that? One measly post a month. Easy.

I am now 25, which is closer to 50 than my own birth. Basically an old man. And old people like me know the horrible truth - If you don't make time for them, life crowds in and steals your dreams.

I've been telling myself "I just need some free time to sit down and write", but there is always something that needs doing first. I have to go to this "job" thing, and by the time I get home my laundry basket has mysteriously filled itself up again. If I manage to get all of the chores done, there's still Japanese to study, video games to play, and beer to drink. Right at the back of my priority list, after all that super boring everyday stuff, are my big plans, slowly collecting dust.

This week I've finally put some time aside, picked a topic, and written a thing. Here it is.

Everything is Hunky-Dory

A key to understanding the Japanese is recognising their almost joyful acceptance of suffering. Japanese teachers stay at school until 10pm most nights because they cant be seen to leave before their superiors. The kids have club activities till 7. Then on top of their mountainous load of homework, they go to cram school because high school entrance exams are coming up. No one complains though. Everybody is struggling, everybody is working hard. Strap on your big boy pants and suck it up.

This attitude is encapsulated by the japanese word gaman - which is difficult to translate, but basically means "persevering silently in the face of adversity". When I speak to Japanese friends they don't want to talk about their long work hours, or how little sleep they've been getting. In fact they rarely want to talk about work at all. Everybody is struggling, everybody is working hard. They much prefer spending their few hours of free time pretending everything is hunky-dory. So we talk about how delicious the food we are eating is, or how beautiful the mountains look this time of year. Oishii ne! Kirei ne!*

When I try to complain about anything, it's just the same. I can tell they are tempted to join me. Tempted to let years and years of pent up frustration out. Instead they put on their best empathetic smile and sweetly utter the national mantra of gaman.

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

The Sado Long Ride

Back at the start of spring, I was polishing off a 3rd flask of sake while talking to my favorite Japanese person. We'll call him Kisu-San because even though he's a happily married man with a baby on the way, he regularly tries to kiss me on the cheek while drunk. Kisu-San is insistent that I join him on a 100km "fun" bike race on Sado island. I'm a little tipsy so I foolishly agree, despite the hibernation belly I'd been nurturing all winter.

Jump forward 3 months. The weekend of the Sado Long Ride rolls around and I am nowhere near ready. It becomes quickly apparent that Kisu-San has told some gigantic white lies. The 100km is really 130km, and we are staying in a hotel 30km away from the start line, bringing the grand total up to 160km. Then we get to the start line and I begin to realise how completely out of my depth I am. This is not a fun ride along the coast. Everyone has all the kit. Fancy bikes, jerseys, clip in pedals, aerodynamic helmets, the whole lot. Meanwhile here I am in trainers and a football top, with a bike I bought for 80 quid 3rd hand. Perfect.

Safe to say I did not gaman at all.  The British were once known for their stiff upper lip but those days are long gone. We have since taken up the national pastime of moaning loudly about everything. I am unable to do my persevering silently. It's just not how I was brought up. I complained non-stop to anyone who would listen. Mostly at Kisu-San

He however did not sink to my level. Instead Kisu-San put on his best empathetic smile and raised the battle cry of gaman.

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

In the end it was a really satisfying day. Being part of a thousand odd people all ganbatte-ing up and down the mountainous coast line really gave you that "we're all in this together" feel. There were young children with their fathers, and old age pensioners alike - all fighting against the odds. Conquering the land one kilometer at a time. The true spirit of gaman. I almost started enjoying the suffering, like a real Japanese person would.

That is until I remembered we all chose to do this voluntarily. And I could just as easily have been at home drinking beer and playing video games. It almost made doing laundry look attractive too.

Japanese Torture Techniques

The race was on Sunday and I was back to work on Monday. After 4 morning lessons I'm barely conscious at my desk, waiting for the angel of death to finally take me. Which is when things go from bad to baddest. The English teacher that supervises me wanders over with a worried look on her face.

"Er... Richard Sensei... I forgot to tell you something...Tomorrow is the Super Challenge Walk. I want you to walk with the first years. They are very excited to walk with you... Richard sensei... why.. why are you crying? "

Pefect. Just perfect. Last year we went on a relaxing little wander around the local area and solved puzzles at various locations. But clearly we had been going too soft on the 12 year olds in our care. Some of them had started to have fun and we couldn't have that. This year the school removed all enjoyable aspects by making the kids march a 38km course through the mountains. Which is basically torture.

For the first 20km it is chucking it down with rain. No one wants to be there. The first year students are really slow and beginning to look like drowned rats.  We get the news that the track and field long distance runners have already finished. Eventually the sun comes out and we settle down for lunch.

The next 18km takes us double the time the first half did, despite most of it being down hill. There isn't one kid in the whole group that isn't limping (I had been limping right from the start line.) Still no one is complaining, because the Japanese love suffering silently and at least it had stopped raining.

4km from the finish line disaster strikes. I've been stumbling along with the same group of first year guys since the beginning. One of the gang moans that he could really use the toilet. The Japanese don't complain so it must be serious. A clear sign that he is absolutely bursting.

Except my teacher brain doesn't kick in at all and I have completely forgotten about the spirit of gaman. I am such an idiot. I even make a joke that anywhere is a toilet if you try hard enough.

A few minutes later I notice the kid is missing. I run back round the corner to find him on the floor bawling his eyes out, desperately trying to take his tracksuit bottoms off. He's wet himself and its all my fault. How could I have missed such an obvious sign? How am I going to make this OK?

I Hate Long Distance Endurance Events

Thankfully out of nowhere a P.E. teacher comes sprinting down the road to save the day. Sensei pulls a pair of spare shorts out of his bag, puts on his best empathetic smile and says the magic words

Ganbatte ne! - Do your best!

Another teacher pulls up in a truck and offers the poor kid a lift. He declines. Even at a young age the Japanese have been brainwashed into a joyful acceptance of suffering. With something resembling a smile, the kid dries his eyes, puts on the fresh shorts, and hobbles onward to the finish line.

The moral of the story I guess is that the Japanese are crazy, and I hate long distance endurance events.


* I was looking up how to spell hunky-dory, and it interestingly enough traces full circle back to the some of the early foreigners in Japan. Honcho-dori is Japanese for "main road". US sailors from the 1860s then combined it with "hunky" meaning "fit and healthy". Possibly it was used to suggest everything in life is going great (i.e. "easy street"), but knowing sailors it was more likely a reference to the massage parlors in the backstreets of Yokohama. I should also mention I know absolutely zero sailors.


  1. blogging twice a year is not enough! Write more!!

    1. Tru. I was gonna write more and then kind of forgot... for a whole year. I'm back though. Watch this space

    2. I'm watching