Some of my favorite Japanese people share a common trait: They hate the word ganbaru (頑張る). In fact, they resent being offered encouragement with phrases like ganbatte ne, ganbare, ganbatte kudasai or any of the other imperative iterations of the usually mindless exhortation directed at people experiencing adversity.
Those learning Japanese may be surprised that ganbaru could have anything other than positive associations, particularly since it is often directed at people trying to learn something! It is also commonly used by well-intentioned people to cheer sports teams, buck up depressed friends and galvanize employees of companies experiencing difficult challenges in business.
Though usually just written in hiragana, ganbaru can more properly be written using the character gan (頑), which is also used in terms such as stubbornness (ganko, 頑固) or ox-like stamina/strength (ganjō, 頑丈). Haru (張る) is a more nuanced term that carries the nuance of “erect” or “set up.”
In modern usage ganbaru actually has two different meanings. The less-common refers to occupying a particular place and not moving — like a sentry. Some theories hold that this usage explains the origins of the term and is derived from the Edo Period (1603-1868) phrase ganharu (眼張る, to watch). So even though the guards in front of the Imperial Palace may be ganbatteiru, they may not be ganbatteiru, if you see what I mean.
This brings us to the more common usage of ganbaru. A Japanese dictionary definition might translate as something like “enduring adversity without giving in to it.” So what’s wrong with that?
Well, living in Japan involves enduring a lot of things. Gaman (我慢) — suffering in silence — is the default setting expected of people most of the time, no matter how hard their situation may be.
Things not going your way? Put up with it. Family problems? Life’s tough for everyone. Your boss just gave you an assignment that will take a week but wants it tomorrow? Ganbatte ne. A nuclear meltdown made your home unlivable? Ganbatte kudasai.
So, while to those using the phrase it may seem a perfectly nice thing to say, to those on the receiving end it may come across as an empty platitude notably devoid of any offer to help. Worse, it may even imply that things might improve if you just tried a bit harder.
For those trying their hardest or already at the end of their rope, this can seem like a slap in the face rather than a gesture of encouragement. Perhaps for that reason, ganbatte is high on the list of things you are not supposed to say to someone suffering from utsu (鬱, depression) (the kanji for which is, appropriately enough, depressingly hard to write or remember).
In the Japanese context, ganbaru and gaman are just a short step removed from seishinron (精神論). This is another term not easily translated (“willpowerism” is the closest I can think of) but which refers to the notion that grit and determination — willpower — can overcome adversity.
In a Western context this might be the theme of a feel-good Ted Talk about innovation. In the Japanese context, however, it relates directly back to idiotic wartime notions like takeyari sanbyakumanbonron (竹槍三百万本論 — literally, “3 million bamboo spear-ism”). This was the theory espoused by some in the Imperial Japanese Army that invasion by militarily superior allied forces could be defeated through the magical combination of bamboo spears and Japanese konjō (根性), meaning “a spirit that does not give in to adversity” (one online dictionary translates konjō more succinctly as “balls”).
While attitude is certainly important to winning wars and many other worthwhile accomplishments, seishinron and konjō cannot overcome the laws of physics involved when bullets fly and things explode, or the limitations of frail human flesh. Seishinron and konjō were a factor in countless futile battles in World War II and have probably featured in many bad business decisions since. It is also a factor in karōshi (過労死, death from overwork) and a depressingly large number of unnecessary student deaths and injuries in school sports.
When you get into the details, even “Abenomics” comes across as relying heavily on seishinron, not to mention a large helping of gaman. Everything’s more expensive but your salary’s the same? Ganbatte ne . . .
Journalists of the type who are being openly berated by Abe-crats for not toeing the party line should also dislike ganbaru and gaman because both implicitly involve quiet obedience: “Ganbare (while complying with my command)”; “Gaman shiro (put up with it) (because I don’t want to hear about why you can’t).”
But then journalists are typically not very sunao (素直) either. This is another term that is usually considered positive. To call someone sunao is usually intended as praise. In many ways it is the opposite of ganko. While sunao implies flexibility, straightforwardness and a lack of duplicity, it becomes hard to explain the nuances in English without using terms like “compliant,” “docile” or “obedient.”
Depending on who you are, these could indeed be praiseworthy traits. In fact, sunao people are also likely to be ganbariya (頑張り屋, people who ganbaru) and gamanzuyoi (我慢強い, patient, good at gaman). While this might make the ranks of the sunao an excellent source of workers and bureaucrats, they may not be as much fun to go drinking with as people who are hinekureteiru (捻くれている, cynical and warped). But maybe that’s just me.