Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Gambatte (頑張って): Words of Encouragement and Burden


Hard work is one of the virtues most prized in Japan. So it is no wonder that their cheer is 頑張って, gambatte. I’ve seen it translated as “hang in there/hold on” but it has an undertone of “I hope you can try hard to get through it”. This is the phrase you say when you see your kids competing in a sport, and this is what you get wished when you are about to start anything of significance. It was also used as a slogan for Kobe after the city that suffered massive damage by the Hanshin earthquake 20 years ago. When Orix BlueWave (baseball team from Kansai/Hanshin area) players showed up with “gambare Kobe”(imperative form of gambatte) on the sleeve of their jerseys, the crowd went wild, and we all got teary eyed. The level and complexity of emotion it evokes is unusual for such a short and simple phrase.

Now that I primarily speak English in my daily life, I may be over thinking this phrase, which may be why I don’t care to be wished gambatte, and I actively avoid wishing it to other people. It feels presumptuous to wish someone to try to work hard to hang in there, as if they weren’t planning to work hard. And why work hard just to hang in there, as if admitting the hard work to win is too audacious or self-centered (there is probably a Japanese version of Jante Law in Scandinavia).

When one of my relatives was feeling down, emotionally and physically exhausted, caring for another family member after a big surgery, I specifically wished her gambaranaide (don’t gambaru), because she is the kind of person who anticipates everyone else’s needs, and works tirelessly, and in an emergency situation that must already have her adrenaline levels going, I wanted to tell her to take some time for herself. At some point, no hard work on her part was going to help someone recovering from surgery. You can’t cheat time.

But it was very weird for me to express what I wanted to say. There doesn’t seem to be expressions that are deemed appropriate in these types of situations that mean “take it easy”. The one that comes close is “無理しないで murishinaide” (literally translated, don’t do the impossible). Indeed, there are so many expressions in English that mean the opposite of gambatte, and I wasn’t the only one intrigued by it. Here a webpage in Japanese that introduces the variations in English for murishinaide: take it easy, don’t ____ too hard, take care.

It’s hard to get passed not saying gambatte that it’s almost impossible to express “don’t try hard, work smart/work different”.

Photo: A relaxing evening viewing the moon in Flagstaff, Arizona


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This entry was posted on July 10, 2015 by in Culture, Japan, language and tagged , , , .
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