Gaman: Endurance with Dignity | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan
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Gaman: Endurance with Dignity

By Afia Ibnat Mar 27, 2023

Gaman is a Japanese concept that refers to the act of endurance or perseverance in the face of difficulties and hardships, often with a stoic demeanor. It is seen as a virtue in Japanese culture and is tied to the idea of not giving up, even in the face of overwhelming adversity. Gaman can also refer to the sacrifice and self-restraint required in order to achieve a long-term goal or to maintain harmony in relationships. The idea of gaman is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and is often used to describe the collective resilience of the Japanese people in the face of natural disasters, economic hardships, and other challenges.

Positives of Gaman

heavy item propped up on gaman

Image credit: Canva

Gaman has helped the Japanese people overcome many challenges and is one of the pillars of Japanese society that is taught to everyone in their childhood. It plays a significant role in maintaining social harmony by encouraging people to suppress their emotions and avoid confrontation. People stand to benefit from less friction as it encourages individuals to put the good of the community or group above their own personal needs and desires, promoting a sense of collective responsibility. Moreover, many believe that enduring difficult situations through gaman can lead to personal growth and a stronger sense of character.

The Other Side of Endurance

pushing upwards

Image credit: Canva

Undoubtedly, the concept of gaman is celebrated for its promotion of resilience and determination – traits that are vital for a person to successfully navigate the trials and tribulations of life. However, gaman is a double-edged sword that can simultaneously promote strength in the face of adversity and encourage conformity in the face of injustice or prejudice.

For example, since practicing gaman requires one to internalize and normalize the status quo, it can lead to excessive stress and burnout by putting too much pressure on people to endure hardship without taking a break. This can especially occur in the workplace as well as in educational settings. If children are taught the concept of gaman from a young age without being taught the tools to reach out to adults to let them know when they are overwhelmed, they might grow up with the expectation that no matter what happens in life, they must quietly endure. Such an upbringing might result in the inability to express one’s own emotions in the face of tragedy or injustice. It can also result in neglecting self-care, leading to mental and physical health issues in childhood and adulthood.

In addition, gaman can also perpetuate harmful social norms, such as discrimination and prejudice, by promoting the idea of sacrifice and self-restraint at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. Bullies at school and the workplace may be able to get away with their misdeeds if the status quo is silent endurance over taking accountability. Systems and structures may favour the silence of victims over taking action against perpetrators, all in the name of perseverance. This can be especially detrimental for women – a group that is already sidelined in Japanese society. 

Despite having one of the largest gender equality gaps among developed nations, divorce rates are low in Japan compared to the rest of the world. This might be the case as people, especially women, are taught to practice gaman in every aspect of their life, including marriage. Add to that the systemic disadvantages that single mothers face in Japanese society, and you create a concoction of suppressed emotions and a feeling of suffocation all in the name of strength and resilience. Many women may opt to stay within a non-functional marriage for the sake of social harmony, although this is slowly changing as more and more women take the reigns. 

Gaman in a Nutshell

It is essential to question and critically examine the foundational pillars of any society, especially when it actively encourages suppression and endurance instead of speaking one’s mind. The concept of gaman is deeply embedded within Japan and is the reason why many Japanese people hold their tongue instead of expressing what they really feel in moments of frustration. This practice is genuinely noble if used in cases where neither party is being exploited. A healthier and more balanced approach to dealing with adversity requires encouraging open communication and self-expression, promoting physical well-being, and embracing diversity and individualism. 

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