Japanese Cultural Principles: Gaman

Gaman (我慢、がまん)

I saw this word being used as a cultural principle over at the Japan Times in an article about a modern production of the Tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin (known natively as the Chuushingura – “chuushin” (中心) means loyalty). They are also known as 47 Ronin, 47 Samurai and so forth, in the West.

Apparently – and I didn’t know this prior to reading the article – the story was considered such an inspiration for the WWII Japan regime that MacArthur’s occupation had it banned in its entirety. I have no idea when or how it became un-banned, either. Anyway, this is a more modern creation, a movie / film that covers the story.

Here we see inserted “gaman” as a principle, defined here as endurance.

Well, I don’t think this is a very good translation, myself.

The Literal Side

The first kanji, (ga), uses the “on-yomi” (Chinese phonetic reading) of the kanji used for the formal 1st person pronoun waga (in native Japanese). Being part of a compound word, the on-yomi is not at all unusual.

The second kanji, (man), has a normal meaning of ridicule / laziness. Well, I personally think it is the first version which fits, but we have to start with the dictionary version and work our way to reality. The root of the kanji is actually sloth, but as the lazy tend to be ridiculed, we can see those aspects. However, it is also true that “boastfulness” and “conceitedness” are borrowed from this concept; so let’s go with conceit.

Other words using the latter kanji are 自慢 (jiman), self + conceit for boastfulness; 高慢 (kouman), high + conceit for haughty; 傲慢 (gouman), pride + conceit for arrogance; 怠慢 (taiman), neglect + conceit for negligence.

It’s not the fault of Japanese, but English uses “pride” both for the positive aspects, and for the deadly sin version. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the homunculus known as Pride (taken as an English loan word in the Japanese version) represents the deadly sin of 傲慢 (gouman), per above.

There is one more good word for our purposes here: 緩慢 (kanman), slacken + sloth. This means slow, sluggish, dull, languid. Thus, it takes our “sloth” not in the sense of a vice, but behavior.

So now that we have context for the kanji, let’s look at gaman itself once more.

The Figurative

So, 我慢 (gaman) is really the imposition of physical reluctance upon the self. It is to behave in a restrained manner.

The easiest way to explain gaman is by calling it perseverance.

In other words, it means to double down and endure, yes, but that’s not the whole picture. Specifically, it means psychological endurance, not being able to take a punch. Hence, perseverance.

This is also being self-effacing, and through that, it is an expression of patience and self-control (even though “patience” is properly 辛抱 (shinbou) in Japanese). It is also in this sense that it means tolerance, for to tolerate behavior is to not react to it even when one otherwise would.

For instance, one scene in the first chapter of Sakura Taisen (which I mention a fair bit here), the main character, Ichiro Ogami, is pressed into service as a ticket clipper for the theater where the “secret military unit” comprised of all girl pilots (before his arrival) was under er, shall we say, very deep cover. Not exactly trained for this, Ensign Ogami has to pretend to be just a lowly ticket clipper and act polite and nice when a quite annoying young boy demands his ticket clipped.

The player can permit Ogami to let slip his annoyance, or to even scold the child, but the proper thing to do is to 我慢する (to persevere). That is, to exhibit self-control in the face of a… spunky and annoying little kid firm in the belief that you, the ticket clipper, are his servant.

Well, that does take some perseverance.

Movie Context

So from the link above,

But in Shigemichi Sugita’s slow-paced and didactic, if well-acted, “Saigo no Chushingura (The Last Ronin),” the old “Chushingura” spirit is still alive and well. Far from being revisionist, the film is unapologetically traditionalist in sentiment; with some tweaking, it would have made an excellent home-front film, circa 1940, since it extols the value of self-sacrifice and gaman (endurance) for a higher, feudalistic good, even in nonviolent anonymity.

So it’s not exactly endurance, but rather than do the normal samurai thing and slit their bellies upon the wrongful death of their lord (from their point of view), these 47 ronin choose two years of life in utter disgrace, mocked by all who knew them, before gathering together in secret and taking the life of the high official who had wronged their lord and caused their lord’s death. They turned themselves in and then slit their bellies, for that was the only proper way it could have gone. They just made sure they got their business done first.

Now, this particular film explores two ronin who were supposed to be part of the whole thing. One was ordered to not participate in the last part so that he could report upon their noble deeds; the other, well, ran off, hid, and became a merchant, which was considered the lowest class of all. (…By the government, which wanted samurai flattered and feeling important.)

Anyway, you can read the rest of the article at the link at the top of this post and judge this movie for yourself. I just wanted to give this cultural principle some context so that there’s no misunderstanding here. It took some explanation, as you can see.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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4 Responses to Japanese Cultural Principles: Gaman

  1. Daniel says:

    Very informative! It goes to show that a lot of eastern concepts can be difficult to grasp for us westerners. I hope to see more entries like this.

  2. Mixolydian says:

    Great article. Gaman can mean so many things, depending on the context. Other translations I don’t see above: stoicism, put up with, deal with, and give in.

    Japanese folks usually espouse gaman, but it can be positive or negative (“We must teach the youth to gaman throughout their lives,” or “Oh well, shoganai, we might as well just gaman [because there’s no other option].”). Non-Japanese folks sometimes admire gaman but often say that the Japanese go too far with it, claiming that the Japanese use gaman as an excuse to avoid resolving uncomfortable situations.

    I use gaman flexibly: as inspiration for strength and discipline when I need that mindset to persevere through difficult, but potentially rewarding, situations; or as an idea to be rejected when I’ve explored all other options and found no acceptable alternative but to move on.