The Misery Ethic


An Essay on Gaman

Japan is an important ally of ours.
Japan and the United States of the Western industrialised capacity, 60% of the GNP, two countries.
That's a statement in and of itself.

- Dan Quayle

by Sue Nees

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 favour.  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 characterisxation 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 emphasise 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 12 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 20s with a wife and a 3-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 honour.

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.

This article was first published on

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You Know You've Been in Japan Too Long When...

bulletYou run for the Yamanote line pushing people left and right, jump on the train holding the doors open to let your bag follow you on.  Because you know there will not be another one for at least a minute.
bulletYou bow to other drivers who give you the right of way.
bulletYou rush onto an escalator, and just stand there.
bulletYou don't hesitate to put a $10 note into a vending machine.
bulletYou appear for your first skiing lesson with brand new Rossignol high performance racing skis and an aerodynamic racing suit with colour matched goggles.  And then snowplow down.
bulletYou think the best part of tv are the commercials.
bulletYou've develop a liking for green tea flavoured ice cream.
bulletYou're arguing with someone about the colour of the traffic light being blue or green and ... you think it's blue.
bulletYou can't have your picture taken without your fingers forming the peace sign.
bulletYou pull up at a gas station and wait for a bunch of Norman Rockwell type attendants to jump out and clean your windshield.
bulletYou go for a drink with friends back home and start pouring everybody's beer.
bulletYour idea of a larger home is an extra 10 square metres.
bulletYou glance at the clock and accurately predict the next line of dialog in the TV drama.
bulletYou are not worried about speeding in the rain, because you know the cops are only out there in good weather.
bulletYou think birds cry.
bulletYou find yourself bowing while you talk on the phone.
bulletYou think US$17 isn't such a bad price for a new paperback.
bulletYou go to a coffee shop in your home country and order "American coffee."
bulletYou are talking on the telephone to your parents and your father says, "Why are you interrupting my explanation with grunts?"
bulletYou don't think it unusual for a truck to play It's a Small World when backing up.
bulletYou think the natural location for a beer garden is on a roof.
bulletYou think that you can impress foreigners by drinking Budweiser.
bulletThe first option you buy for your car is a tv set.
bulletYou really enjoy corn soup with your Big Mac.
bulletYou think the opposite of red is white.
bulletYou leave your expensive bottle of Royal Salute with a sleazy barkeeper and don't worry.
bulletYou buy a potato-and-strawberry sandwich for lunch without cringing.
bulletYou phone an English-speaking gaijin friend and somehow can't bring yourself to get to the point for the first 3 minutes of the conversation.
bulletYou stop enjoying telling newcomers to Japan "all about Japan".
bulletYou automatically remember all of your important year dates in Showa numbers.
bulletYou have mastered the art of simultaneous bowing and hand-shaking.
bulletYou think it's all right to stick your head into a stranger's apartment to see if anybody's home.
bulletYou think "white pills, blue pills, and pink powder" is an adequate answer to the question "What are you giving me, doctor?"
bulletYou no longer find anything unusual in the concept of "Vermont curry".
bulletYou think 4 layers of wrapping is reasonable for a simple piece of merchandise.
bulletYou don't find anything strange about a city that puts a life-sized, red-and-white painted Eiffel tower imitation in its centre, as well as a scale model of the Versailles Palace for its Crown Prince.
bulletYou get on a train with a number of gaijin on it and you feel uneasy because the harmony is broken.
bulletYou ask fellow foreigners the all-important question "How long have you been here?" in order to be able to properly categorise them.
bulletLooking out the window of your office, you think "Wow, so many trees!" instead of "Wow, so much concrete!"
bulletIn the middle of nowhere, totally surrounded by rice fields and abundant nature, you aren't surprised to find a drink vending machine with no visible means of a power supply and when you think nothing of it when that lonely vending machine says "thank you" after you buy a coke.
bulletThe tv commercials make sense to you.
bulletA non-Japanese sits down next to you on the train and you get up and move.  You're not prejudiced, but who knows what they might do?
bulletYou only have 73 transparent, plastic umbrellas in your entrance because you have donated 27 to the JR and various taxi companies in the past few months.
bulletYou think rice imports should be prohibited, because Japanese consumers would never buy imported rice.
bulletYou think one kind of rice tastes better than another kind.
bulletYou rush home from work to catch the last few minutes of sumo.
bulletYou see a road with two lanes going in the same direction and assume the one on the left is meant for parking.
bulletYou pull out your ruler to underline words.
bulletIn getting ready for a trip you automatically calculate for omiyage and you leave just the right amount of space in your suitcase for them.
bulletOn a cold autumn night, the only thing you want for dinner is nabe and nihonshu.
bulletYou return the bow from the cash machine.
bulletYou can't find the "open" and "close" buttons in the elevator because they're in English.
bulletYou think that coffee goes perfectly well with squid pizza.
bulletYou mention Japan Times and "objective" in one sentence.
bulletIt doesn't surprise you that a case of beer has the same per unit price as a single can.
bulletYou think cod roe spaghetti with chilled red wine is a typical Italian dish.
bulletYou buy a Christmas cake on Christmas eve.
bulletWhen you accompany your "no" by the famous waving hand-in-front-of-nose.
bulletYou find yourself apologising at least three times per conversation.
bulletWhen you let your car idle for half an hour while you go shopping.
bulletYou find your self asking all your foreign acquaintances what their blood types are.
bulletYou find yourself practicing golf swings with your umbrella on the train platform.
bulletYou take practice golf swings on the train platform *without* an umbrella in your hand.
bulletYou buy an individually wrapped potato in the supermarket.
bulletYou think that "Lets SPORTS yOUNG gAY CluB" is a perfectly normal T-shirt logo for a middle aged lady.
bulletYou go to a book shop with the full intention to read all the interesting magazines and put them back on the shelf.
bulletYou're careful to specify a nonsmoking seat on the flight from Denver to St Louis.
bulletYou think no car is complete without a tissue box on the rear shelf and a feather duster in the trunk.
bulletYou use the "slasher hand" and continuous bowing to make your way through a crowd.
bulletAll of your December Sundays are reserved for Bonenkai hangover recovery.
bulletYou forget about July 4th, but get all worked up over Tanabata.
bulletWhen it all seems normal.


See also:

bulletQuirky Japan (an external site) - The Quirky Japan Homepage is a site dedicated to digression, kitsch, inessentiality, irreverence, irregularity, deviancy, obscurity, idiosyncrasy,   eccentricity, peculiarity, individuality, creativity, and most of all, originality.   Conformists, puritans and package tourists not welcome.

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