The Japanese verb, ‘頑張る’ (or ganbaru) is perhaps one of the most-used words in the whole language. It refers to the idea of persevering or more commonly, to do one’s best. It can be used in various situations by both an individual speaking about themselves, such as, “頑張ります！” (ganbarimasu; I will do my best!) to asking another person to do their best, “頑張って！” (ganbatte; do your best).
In fact, just recently when I sent a message to a Japanese acquaintance saying, “Good luck!” for an upcoming test, he was puzzled as to why I’d used English rather than Japanese. The above phrase is not only used to ask another person to do their best, but is also considered to be the equivalent of ‘good luck,’ and is therefore, far more potent in meaning than my simple words.
On the other hand, as with all translations, reducing it to one meaning in English is doing it an injustice. After speaking with another Japanese friend just before writing this post, I believe the word is far more encompassing than any phrase that exists in the English language.
His opinion is that the word denotes to do THE best, not just YOUR best. In other words, striving for perfection, and unless this perfection is reached, it is seen as a failure. It’s an interesting take on the translation, because in Western countries, trying one’s best does not mean having to be number one and if you don’t succeed, than you’ve still learned something in the process. He believes that Japanese people are afraid of making a mistake and therefore, they are reluctant to try in the first place. I had never considered it this way, but it may be so. Until he mentioned this, I had a different opinion.
To me, Japanese people are always trying their best. In fact, I would say that even if they don’t succeed they try again. They are extremely resilient. Their history of being self-sufficient despite a lack of natural resources (such as their closed-doors policy during the Edo period) has resulted in them being stubborn to a fault. Again, this is my perception, but as someone who is equally as stubborn, I can relate and totally understand. They have faced many set-backs in their history, yet they have emerged stronger than ever. Their strength and perseverance is something I greatly admire them for.
10 years ago I was someone who gave up easily if a situation wasn’t working to my advantage. I felt though that it was more like running away from a problem and it certainly didn’t fix anything. In fact, the problem reared its ugly head in a different and slightly larger way the next time it appeared. In the end I stopped running and I faced it. I still use this same approach and in the past two years living in Japan, I’ve become a resilient person too. I both admire and fear this new me.
I admire it because I’ve learned how versatile, adaptable and strong I can be, but equally, I have been disgusted and afraid at how my views have changed (some of my views on sex and marriage have been blown away completely!) I always thought the morals and values I grew up with were the ‘correct’ ones and everyone else was wrong. Now I’ve learned that things are not always black and white like Western culture, but come in many shades of grey. That’s initially difficult to comprehend when your entire life/culture has told you something different. But… I am learning to go easy on myself and to remind myself of a phrase one of my science teachers used to use. He often gave us examples in class that challenged our views and more often than not we reacted by exclaiming, “That’s wrong!” He would shake his head and say, “It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it just IS.” The same applies to Japan. Just because something doesn’t align with your values/morals doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different. I’ve also learned that my morals/values have changed and that doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me human.
Sorry to go off on such a tangent, but my point is that in the past year I have seen, done and faced so much that I believe finally I can understand the true meaning of the verb, ‘頑張る’ (ganbaru).
But… I do feel that despite this understanding, there is a point where you have to decide if you will keep trying for something or if it’s time to walk away. Giving up and choosing to walk away are two completely different things and should not be mistaken for the same thing IN ANY WAY.
I have had a complicated and volatile relationship with a Japanese man since I first met him last year and the other night after I collapsed on the floor in a heap, hating myself for messaging him and yet wanting desperately for him to admit that he too wants a committed relationship, I decided: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. So I ripped his business card into tiny pieces, I disposed of it immediately and I deleted every trace of him that had ever existed. I have no way to contact him unless he makes the effort. I have been pushed to breaking point and I have survived.
Giving up and choosing to walk away are completely different things. Do not feel that walking away is giving up. The words ‘giving up’ are not in my vernacular. I am stubborn to a fault, but I know when something is no longer serving me in a healthy way and I have certainly learned when to walk away. You can do the same.