You hear this expression every day in Japan. “Do your best!” “Try harder!” “Stick to it!” “Don’t give up!” are but a few of the positive messages conveyed. It offered succor 25 years ago when I was in university bushwhacking through the Japanese language: One “ganbatte!” from Sensei emboldened me for the rest of the week.
However, recent events have exposed a problem with ganbatte.
It’s gone beyond being a harmless old saw, platitude or banality. It’s become at best a sop, at worst a destructive mantra or shibboleth. It creates a downward cycle into apathy in the speaker, indifference in the afflicted.
No doubt some people are thinking I’m nuts or making molehill mountains as usual. After all, what’s wrong with encouraging people down on their luck to overcome obstacles?
Isn’t it better than the downbeat sarcasm you get in the West — where misfortune can be greeted with self-justifying “life sucks, then you die” pessimism, and where you can be made to feel a fool for not “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” like the heroic “rugged individualist” you ought to be?
Yes, of course. But bear in mind that some things cannot be fixed by mere encouragement.
For example, take the recent slogans “Ganbare Nippon” or “Ganbare Tohoku” following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.
Just telling victims to “do their best” in the face of such adversity (some of it the result of government corruption, human error and just plain hubris) is in fact insulting.
There is already a suggested moratorium in Japan on telling people with physical or mental handicaps to ganbatte. This is because it doesn’t really help them “overcome” anything (it’s not that simple). Moreover, asking them to “persevere” through this situation often puts pressure on them, again to their mental detriment.
The thing is, “ganbatte!” is often said by someone who isn’t suffering to someone who is. It can also offer sympathy without the tea.
Consider the Tohoku disaster victims. What they really need is assistance both physical and financial, and coordinated action by the authorities to help them reconstruct their lives in a place of their choosing.
Instead, look what they’re getting: A government paralyzed by sloth, doling out underwhelming aid. A Parliament gridlocked by political party games. An ongoing nuclear situation whose resolution depends on a profoundly corrupt system more interested in controlling the flow of bad news to the public than in dealing with the problem in a trustworthy and forthright manner.
But never mind: Let them eat slogans. “Ganbare Tohoku!” plus ¥600 might get you lunch — if things are reconstructed enough for business. Six months of meme later, many victims are at their wits’ end.
Again, I understand the need for demonstrated solidarity. But too often a facile “ganbatte!” is treated like a panacea, absolving people of a need to do more.
A catchphrase you can just toss over your shoulder in passing means you can feel you’ve done your bit. You’ve watched victims on TV and gone “kawaisō” (what a pity), seen “Ganbare Tohoku” slapped on various convenience store products, maybe thrown some coins in a box by the register. What more is necessary?
How about pushing for improvements to the system and increased accountability, to make sure this sort of thing never happens again?
But that would take more effort from the public, and “ganbatte” is to me symptomatic of a country with a curiously underdeveloped civil society.
To be sure, there have been demos, volunteerism and a groundswell of public support after Fukushima. But things like this tend to taper off quickly (as they do anywhere in the world) when media attention (or, in the case of dangers connected with Japan’s nuclear power industry, willful media nonattention) shifts and outlets eventually find different “news” to report.
If it’s not news, then people not immediately affected by a disaster tend to assume that things have naturally gotten fixed by us, the intrinsically industrious Japanese. We’ll check back in a few months or so.
Meanwhile, the government is supposed to take up the slack. But when it slacks off — as it has done once again with Fukushima — ganbatte even shifts the responsibility onto the victims to get over the hump themselves.
After all, if the tragedy didn’t happen in Tokyo, the center of Japan’s political and bureaucratic universe, the elites don’t much care. They’re busy with their own affairs, and the plebs in the provinces can “do their best” with what they have. We wish them well, of course, or at least we’ll say so. But if they don’t overcome their own hardships, maybe they didn’t try hard enough.
Because, you see, the flip side of ganbatte is gaman (patient endurance), and both memes share the sense of perseverance in the face of adversity.
Unfortunately, in Japan a preternatural amount of cultural value is assigned to triumphing over suffering (even to not triumphing; dying in the effort is still valiant). Ganbatte leads to gaman over time.
This mental process then reinforces the other buzzwords of “settling for things as they are” (akirame) and realizing that “nothing can be done about it” (shikata ga nai).
Once enough people feel powerless, they stop pushing for reform. Then comes the systemic coverup of abdicated responsibilities, and ultimately a rewritten history of avertable tragedies.
This fatalism in Japan is so often fatal, and “ganbatte!” is ironically the first step toward stopping people collectively feeling they need to change things. That is exactly the opposite result we need now for a very troubled Japan in decline.
Debito Arudou’s novel “In Appropriate” is now on sale (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Twitter arudoudebito. Send comments to email@example.com