Philosophy  •  November 6, 2003

The Misery Ethic — An Essay on Gaman

I love Japan. But it isn’t all about cute teacups and bamboo placemats and good manners and steaming hot baths and the perfume of incense. When people ask me what Japan was like, I have trouble framing my answer, because it is so complicated.

I remember silly things, like the interactive popcorn machine in the video arcade and the talk-funny haiku on all the merchandise. I remember beautiful things, like temple gardens and the haunting strains of the shakuhachi flute.

But along with all that, my mental scrapbook also contains far too many portraits of brokenhearted people living their lives in a state of resigned self-destruction.

I can’t stand to see people suffer. And when people ask me what I remember about Japan, the suffering is often what I remember most vividly: the alcoholism, the suicides, the broken marriages, and the children who inherit it all.

I remember the overall tone of secrecy and the rigid expectations that set the stage for every social interaction imaginable. The elaborate strategic planning that went into asking a friend for a small favor. The mandatory drinking binges with clients and associates in various stages of alcohol-related illness.

I remember the first time I was told that a certain barkeeper I had met was actually Korean, but I was to keep it an absolute secret, because he was passing himself off as Japanese to avoid discrimination.

I have absolutely no desire to condemn Japanese society, or even to portray it in an unflattering light. That type of sweeping characterization is something I want to strenuously avoid, particularly at such a sensitive time. I dislike politics intensely, but feel that something would be missing here if I did not express my personal dismay and embarrassment as an American to see my leader show such tragic disregard for domestic and international opinion.

But I feel like I am lying when I don’t paint the whole picture about how I remember Japan.

When I first got to Japan, I was fascinated by ideals like gaman and bushido, which place a high priority on orderliness, discipline, self-sacrifice and the warrior spirit. To me, they were novel, even heroic. And in fact, there are countless instances in which these ideals have produced some very impressive results; achievements which are a credit to the strength of human will.

But as time went by and I spent more time in Japan, I began to see the darker shades of gaman: shame; blind obedience; drudgery, conformity; self-effacement to the point of nothingness.

Take gaman even further, and you have Hysterical Insensitivity, the state in which one’s ability to feel nothing is elevated to a high art. This is the psychological environment in which indifference to human feelings is not only acceptable, it is something heroic which is to be practiced with flair and elan. Enter seppuku (hara-kiri) and the Rape of Nanking.

I want to emphasize the fact that I am moved by compassion, not contempt, in evaluating these issues. I do not wish to criticize the Japanese for gaman any more than I want to criticize Catholics for Catholic Guilt.

And please know that I do not take an outsider’s self-righteous approach toward gaman. One of the reasons I am so obsessed with critiquing gaman is because it is so inherent in my nature.

When I was twelve years old I stopped speaking for two years. I spoke, of course, when I was spoken to, but other than that I offered absolutely nothing of myself to the world outside my family. I was a ghost; I was invisible. This was my answer to the insults of adolescence.

It took incredible patience, discipline, and venom to accomplish this. My coma was a graceful, self-destructive surrender a Samurai might envy; it was a state of nothingness worthy of any Zen monk.

It was a fantastically weird and unhealthy thing to do. It was a suicide without the suicide. And that is why I am so suspicious of gaman.

When gaman goes bad, it is the perfect vehicle for psychotic self-hate and obedience for the sake of self-negation. So how do you know when gaman has gone too far?

Resignation itself is such a neutral concept; it is something that can go in a very positive direction, or a very negative direction. Knowing how to choose the right battles is very tricky. How do you decide when is persistence a bad thing? When does self-discipline become unhealthy? When is it best to simply make peace with your situation, and when is this a tragic form of surrender?

One of the most commonly used Japanese expressions which makes reference to gaman is the phrase “Gambatte!” Gambatte is an all-purpose slogan used to express sympathy for someone in difficult circumstances. As I see it, gambatte is a combination of “Suck it Up” and “Way to Go, Champ!”

The Western cousin of “gambatte!” is the “Cheer Up!” directive, that dreaded phrase that strikes cold terror into the heart of every suicide hotline volunteer. (Suicide awareness resources almost invariably list “Cheer Up!” or “Snap Out of It!” as two of the worst things you could say to a suicidal person.)

If you ask me, “Cheer Up!”, when it is used in the wrong context, is an insidious and authoritarian form of censorship. Censorship in the conventional sense refers to a situation in which we are told that our opinion is unacceptable. When emotions are censored, though, the individual is essentially told that it is wrong to feel the way they feel. This is a very devastating personal indictment, to say the least.

My other objection to the “Gambatte!” and “Cheer Up!” directives is this: they discourage criticism about the things we should and should not be putting up with. Why should I “gambatte!” or “cheer up!” if cheerful resignation is the worst thing I could possibly strive for right now?

I am the last person who would try to argue that human life is supposed to be miserable. But I will say this: there are circumstances in life in which sadness, anger, or depression are completely appropriate responses, even if someone supposedly has “nothing to be depressed about”. In tempering this inner conflict with the “Cheer up” or “Gambatte” directive, we run the risk of stifling what could otherwise develop into real, positive change for society and the individual.

Sadness, frustration, and anger are all terrible things to deal with, and they should always be addressed, but making the choice to feel depressed about one’s situation is a human right. And very often, and these feelings are the healthiest, most intelligent option available. The last thing we should try to do is to marginalize those who, for whatever reason, cannot find a way out of these feelings, because it doesn’t take much to make a depressed person feel completely estranged from the entire human race. All it takes is a little bit of stigmatization.

And unfortunately, stigmatization is one of the trademarks of Japanese life. In a culture where conformity is at a premium, shame and secrecy have the ability to exact horrifying punishments on the human mind.

I remember a funeral I attended many years ago for a man in his early twenties with a wife and a three-year-old child. He had taken his own life. To dispose of himself, he slit open his stomach, then set himself on fire with gasoline. It was if he meant to say: “There.” Have I been emphatic enough in expressing my contrition for the fact that I am such a failure as a human being?

It was if the violence of this act would pre-empt criticism after his death about his inability to gaman. It makes my blood run cold just to think that a human being would go to those extremes just for that small claim to honor.

I still love Japan, but I am not eager to go back. I know too much now about the emotional landscape. Yes, Fuji-san is beautiful and the sakura are exquisite and the food is divine. Yes, the people are hospitable to a fault and there are no words to describe the beauty of a temple garden on a quiet afternoon. Yes, there are romantic, Tale-of-Genji moments every now and then, to be sure, but real life in Japan is no fairy tale.

To me, living in Japan has been more like a long, sad cautionary tale that says don’t be a martyr. When you need help, for God’s sake, ask for it.