Every child in Japan is taught to gaman: to patiently persevere in tough times. Is this the way to create an orderly society, or does gaman have a dark side?

The work day in Tokyo generally starts with a ride through the world’s busiest subway system. About 20 million people take the train in Japan’s capital every day.

It’s a stressful process as harried commuters rush in all directions. On the platform, everyone shuffles into tight formation beside the train doors to avoid obstructing disembarking passengers, then rushes in, albeit in crowd-enforced slow motion.

Those who squeeze on board find movement is near impossible; feet sometimes don’t touch the ground. And yet, even in these packed trains, resigned silence reigns.

Calm and orderly behaviour tends to be characteristic of even the biggest crowds in Japan. Visitors from abroad are often surprised by people’s willingness to wait patiently for transport, brand launches and, for example, aid and assistance after the devastating Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, which occurred eight years ago last week.

But considerable effort goes into maintaining this outward order: in Japan, this effort is known as ‘gaman’.

Persevering in tough times

Simply put, it’s the idea that individuals should show patience and perseverance when facing unexpected or difficult situations, and by doing so maintain harmonious social ties. The concept implies a degree of self-restraint: you put the brakes on your feelings to avoid confrontation. It’s an expected duty and seen as a sign of maturity.

David Slater, professor of anthropology and director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Tokyo’s Sophia University, describes gaman as a set of strategies to deal with events outside our control. “Individuals develop within themselves an ability to persevere and tolerate things that are unexpected or bad, difficult to get through,” he says.

It’s an expected duty and seen as a sign of maturity

At the root of it, explains Noriko Odagiri, a professor of clinical psychology at Tokyo International University, is the fact that Japanese people value not saying too much and suppressing negative feelings toward others.

Training begins early; children learn by parental example. Patience and perseverance are also part of education, starting in primary school. “Especially for women, we are educated to gaman as much as possible,” says Odagiri.

Gaman can manifest over the long-term, like staying in an unpleasant job or tolerating an annoying colleague, or short-term, like ignoring a noisy passenger or an elderly queue-jumper.

Yoshie Takabayashi, 33, was a silversmith in Tokyo before she got married, moved to Kanazawa and had children. Asked about when she uses gaman, she flags up her post-baby life and the fact that she can no longer do some of the things she used to enjoy. She also recalls a bully at work who she had to flatter to get vital training, avoid trouble and keep her job.

“When I look back on that time, my boss didn’t even do anything to help. I should have quit. But my parents, and everyone around me who had also just started working, kept encouraging me to be a success. I didn’t realise how much gaman I’d put in,” she says.

‘Beautify the gaman’

Gaman originated in Buddhist teachings about bettering oneself before gradually being shaped into a perseverance mechanism for individuals navigating membership of social groups. It was honed during Japan’s post-war economic boom when work took on the status of nation-building – meaning sacrificing time with family for long hours in the office.

Some see gaman-style perseverance as Japan’s defining feature. “It’s the representative characteristic of Japanese people, but it has good and bad points,” says Nobuo Komiya, a criminologist at Rissho University in Tokyo.

Komiya believes the mutual surveillance, self-monitoring and public expectations associated with gaman are a contributory factor in Japan’s low crime rate. Where people watch out for each other and avoid conflict, everyone is more careful about their actions.

Especially for women, we are educated to gaman as much as possible - Noriko Odagiri

But it’s not only about group dynamics. “It’s important to remember gaman benefits the individual,” says Komiya. “It means they don’t get fired from work or can gain from continuing relations with people around them.”

But gaman imposes pressure on the individual. “We beautify the gaman,” says Odagiri. Many people in Japan expect others to guess how they feel, rather than express themselves directly, and sometimes the pressure can mount.  

“Too much gaman has a negative impact on our mental health,” she says. “Sometimes when people hold too much negativity, the gaman can convert into psychosomatic disease.”

Asking for help with mental health is often seen as failure, says Odagiri. People are expected to manage by themselves. But sometimes this doesn’t work and leads to angry explosions, which can result in domestic or workplace violence.

Gaman can also leave women trapped in unhappy marriages. “Our society expects women to be humble or quiet. So sometimes women try not to express negative feelings, just gaman,” says Odagiri. And when they decide to divorce, many find they can’t because they’ve sidelined their careers for families and are no longer financially independent.

Komiya links recent increases in reporting of sexual harassment and bullying to the breakdown of social structures prioritising the group over the personal. “Japanese people say gaman is a national virtue, but really it was a means to stay in the group,” he says. Now people feel less likely to be excluded if they speak up.

Why gaman in the gig economy?

And society is indeed changing. Thirty years ago, employment in Japan was for life. Traditionally, men worked long hours earning seniority in the company where they spent their whole career, while women were typically placed in non-promotion track jobs in preparation for leaving to raise children.

Some young people are choosing not to gaman, shunning the paths taken by previous generations

But today the lifetime employment system is breaking down, people are marrying later, more women are working and the birthrate is at its lowest level in history. Many young people work on temporary contracts or in part-time jobs where gaman counts for nothing. 

“They’re not looking at you as an intrinsic member of the group. You’re hired and fired, you have a contract, you’re paid by the hour,” says Slater. “The whole idea of gaman-ing here is completely maladaptive. You’ll keep your job by shutting up, but all the taught values of gaman that make sense for coherent and enduring social relationships no longer make sense.”

And some young people are choosing not to gaman, shunning the paths taken by previous generations. Mami Matsunaga, 39, worked in fashion media before swapping Tokyo for the beach. She now surfs every day and teaches mindfulness, breathing and yoga at retreats and workshops around Japan.

“In Japanese culture, the expectation for gaman puts pressure on everyone to do the same and leaves little room for difference,” says Matsunaga. Asked if she ever persevered at work, she answers: “Nope, I didn’t. I soon left the job if anything like that needed to happen.”

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