Humanity has more or less perfected the art of passing down elements unique to specific cultures across generations. The simultaneity of continuity and change is one of the greatest paradoxes that each of us grapples with more or less on a daily basis. Everything that is useful to us is carried forward, and things that aren’t as useful inevitably gets changed. While the efficiency with which we carry this out is in question, what is undeniable is that our verdict is our very own version of natural selection in play.
These verdicts collectively pave way for the formation of normative rules based on which we lead our lives – a natural order that each society has developed over time.
Calm and orderly behaviour tends to be characteristic of even the biggest crowds in Japan. Visitors from abroad are often surprised by people’s willingness to wait patiently for transport, brand launches and, for example, aid and assistance after the devastating Fukushima earthquake and tsunami…
But considerable effort goes into maintaining this outward order: in Japan, this effort is known as ‘gaman’.
Humans have persevered through unimaginable things – from bubonic plagues to natural disasters to genocides and world wars. Granted that a large share of the damage stems from human action. While these are catastrophic and terrible on any order of magnitude, living through the banality of everyday modern existence is like that barnacle that we cannot remove. The Japanese have a normative rule that serves this very purpose that is well-embedded in its society – gaman
Individuals develop within themselves an ability to persevere and tolerate things that are unexpected or bad, difficult to get through
Gaman is a Zen Buddhist ideology that is comparable to stoicism. It is about centring oneself to focus their energies on things that is within their control and to persevere to good measure. Alternate meanings to the term are – to assert oneself or be wilful and to regard oneself as great.
The idea of gaman however is difficult to reconcile, in its purest sense, in modern society. To gaman in today’s world is to endure a job that you do not want to get fired from, to continue to stay in unhappy marriages, to not ask for help with mental health because you are expected to manage yourself – to soldier quietly and lose a little every time so as to not lose all at once. What this means is a passive group of citizens who put their heads down and go about their lives quietly.
The mutual surveillance, self-monitoring and public expectations associated with gaman are a contributory factor in Japan’s low crime rate. Where people watch out for each other and avoid conflict, everyone is more careful about their actions.
It’s important to remember gaman benefits the individual, … It means they don’t get fired from work or can gain from continuing relations with people around them.
This idea of individual values driving outer order is not a new phenomenon, although the idea of manufacturing outer order is relatively new. Gaman, despite its prevalence for centuries, was central to nation-building in post-war Japan which was on its way to become an economic superpower. This is much like other means deployed elsewhere to unite its people after monarchies paved way for nations. Children were taught about the significance of gaman in schools. Women especially were educated to be as gaman as possible. (The situation is fast-changing in Japan. Read the section on Why Gaman in the Gig Economy)
This is where I believe the idea of gaman has been diluted. Small societies and communities of the past could be easily organised, and that is no longer an easy task. Rapidly changing societies meant deploying noble ideas to ensure conformity.
All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy …
But as long as we wander at random, not following any guide except the shouts and discordant clamours of those who invite us to proceed in different directions, our short life will be wasted in useless roamings… our habit of thinking that those things are best which are most generally received as such, … and of living not by reason but by imitation of others.Seneca
We can take a page out of John Steinbeck’s letter to his friend, Webster F. Street, in the winter of 1926, to understand the nuances of gaman and what it means to our everyday existence. He wrote to his friend after he took a job as a caretaker of a large estate in Lake Tahoe in California where he was snowed in most of the year with nobody around him for miles. There are bigger instances of human perseverance but this appealed to me because it is beautifully ordinary.
Do you know, one of the things that made me come here, was, as you guessed, that I am frightfully afraid of being alone. The fear of the dark is only part of it. I wanted to break that fear in the middle, because I am afraid much of my existence is going to be more or less alone, and I might as well go into training for it. It comes on me at night mostly, in little waves of panic, that constrict something in my stomach. But don’t you think it is good to fight these things?
Don’t you think it is good to fight these things? Don’t you think this fight is one we must persevere in?
The Art of Perseverance – How Gaman defined Japan (BBC Worklife)
Mr. Suzuki’s Lament: Self-Denial Wears Thin for Japanese (LA Times)
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