Discussion: JK on the oversimplistic panacea of slogan “Ganbare Nippon/Tohoku” etc.


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Hi Blog. Submitter JK also wrote a brief essay on “Ganbare”, and how it seems more than just a bit facile for the times we live in. Food for thought. I’ll put this under “Discussions”, which means I’ll comment less and allow more comments through (as long as they do not go ad hominem and do stick to point, of course). What do Debito.org Readers think? Arudou Debito


September 17, 2011
From JK

Hi Debito: I wanted to share this with you on a side thread not connected to debito.org as it’s been on my mind for a while now.

I’ve been pondering the following question — “If I had to boil down the essence of what it is to be Japanese using a single expression, what would it be?”.

My answer is 「頑張れ」.

And the situation in 釜石市 epitomizes this.

Brief synopsis of 釜石市: it is 90% mountains and 10% flat land — the former is basically a glorified fishing village that was wiped out by the March tsunami.

I did some research, and it turns out that this place has been flattened by tsunami, not once, not twice, but three times prior to 2011 (specifically, 1896, 1933, and 1968).

The city council is floating various reconstruction plans, such as making the sea wall higher, raising the elevation of the land, better evacuation response and improved shelters, a ‘dual-layer’ approach, etc. The plans are either not feasible (project cost is too high and/or schedule cannot be met in time to prevent another tsunami disaster) or cannot guarantee the safety of the citizens and/or their property (people must be evacuated into shelters, not all will make it in time, those who do make it will survive, but their dwelling and belongings will be destroyed).

It appears to me that 釜石市 as a city is untenable unless the national government or fishing industry is going to do something to ensure that this city can last for more than 50 years at a time (e.g. shoulder the cost of a 10-meter high sea wall). If neither entity values the existence 釜石市 enough to make this happen, then in my opinion, the city need not exist.

But I have not seen or heard this point addressed. 「諦め」, it seems, is not an option on the table if certain conditions are not met to ensure the long-term survival of 釜石市. I have, however seen and heard a great deal of 「頑張れ東北!」 and 「頑張れ日本!」.

As you can see, 頑張れ is not always appropriate — it can only take you so far, and then that’s it. The key of course is to know when to 頑張れ and when to 諦め, and I don’t see much critical thinking along these lines taking place at the moment.

On a related note, 「頑張れ日本!」 and 「頑張れ東北!」come across to me as over-simplistic panaceas for Japan’s / Touhoku’s woes, and because of this, I resent the use of these expressions.

Cordial Regards, JK

P.S. Compare and contrast 「頑張れ」 with “La Joie de vivre”, the essence of what it is to be French IMO.


23 comments on “Discussion: JK on the oversimplistic panacea of slogan “Ganbare Nippon/Tohoku” etc.

  • La joie de vivre is far from being the essence of being French.

    I also don’t see much point with comparing it to 頑張れ. Joie de vivre is about being content and joyful with the ups and downs of life simply because you’re alive. It’s a passive sentiment that does not care about hardship, whereas 頑張れ is about overcoming hardship. And it’s not even close to being as important to French culture as 頑張れ is to Japanese culture.

    Unless your point is that 頑張れ shouldn’t be important either.

  • Personally, all this ‘ganbare touhoku’, and ‘ganbare nippon’ stuff really annoys me (and almost everyone else I have talked to about it in Sendai).

    What, exactly, are we supposed to ‘ganbaru’ about?

    The radiation and dioxin problems? The unemployment? The painfully slow action taken by the central government?

    I would love to hear specific proposals to help, but keep your meaningless platitudes to yourself, particularly if you don’t live round here 😉

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    I like the simplicity, of 頑張れ,but agree that it is used to overkill.
    I also think that any importance that should be attatched to the word has been diluted from years of association with sport – watch any international sporting event on TV and you’ll be lead to believe that the Japanese language consists entirely of three words: “ganbare”, “tsuyoi”, and “Nippon”.
    Much like the first week following March 11 gave us lots of corny but otherwise feel-good ads from AC reminding us of the importance of human relationships. By the next week, the soccer players had taken over, chanting “Nippon, Nippon” just like in a soccer match.

    Ultimately, the message to come out of March 11 was that we all have to pull together.
    Unfortunately, the reality is that some don’t have to pull very hard at all.

  • Gambare is the yellow ribbon of Japan.

    In America, instead of doing something meaninful like pay more taxes or volunteer to serve, it became fashionable to display a yellow ribbon “in support of” American troops or whatever the cause might be. This was particularly slick, because not only did it fill the space where the answer to “what are you doing to make things better? (win the war, etc.)” would go, it came across as if the ribbon flyer actually was doing something by the symbolic act.

    So in Japan, telling someone to “gambare”, where you yourself really don’t have to in the same way, is something that is easily abused. No wonder the people who are actually having hard times get sick of hearing it. It’s almost like an insult to people’s intelligence.

    If it were polite enough to respond, “what’s your sacrifice?”, I bet you’d stop hearing “gambare”.

  • “Ganbare” is just a word and the easy way out when people have nothing with any real merit to say. It makes people feel good or look like they care about something/someone without doing anything. It`s an overused word that I get tired of hearing. If you really want to send a word of encouragement, be specific.

  • beneaththewheel says:

    I’m a little uncomfortable with we- non-native Japanese speakers- talking about the “true” meaning of Japanese words. Where do we get this sense from?

    I think the problem with “ganbare nippon” is that it can feel like an empty statement, and that’s regardless of the actual words themselves. It’s used as a form of solidarity, which is nice, but it sometimes feels like all form and no content, or at it’s worse conformity. Ultimately, to me it depends on how those affected feel about it. I’m speculating from my non-affected neighborhood.

    I also thought the main word they were throwing around to describe the Japanese people after the earthquake was kizuna (絆).

    As for saying, “the city need not exist”, I bet the families living their for generations may feel differently despite whatever utilitarian conclusion may be arrived at. The reason the point has not been addressed is because people are attached to their land or hometown. From my experience, this appears to be true in most old-country (i.e. not America, Australia etc.) rural areas.

    And finally as a stylistic thing, I personally dislike the use of kanji in English. I had to look up the pronunciation of the town (Kamaishi), and since we’re discussing in English, it feels weird that it is a problem. I’m sure it was not the intention, but it comes across as Japanese ability elitism a little bit to me. However, this is just a style thing and I can appreciate other opinions on the topic.

  • I remember a couple years ago when a woman sued her husbands company because her husband killed himself, he was depressed and couldn’t get time off, his boss Ganbare’d him to a early grave.

    This article from the Carter center is interesting, Death by conformity.


    After his death, the company acknowledged that Kanaya had informed the subsidiary’s president that he was cracking under his heavy workload. In a conversation with Kanaya’s widow, the president explained that he had brushed aside his call for help by attributing it to “a case of homesickness.” Over drinks he had delivered Japan Inc.’s traditional admonishment. He told his troubled maintenance manager to gambatte–hunker down and do his best. That was the last thing he needed to hear.

    Also this Telegraph article, Japan the least healthy place to work in the world.


  • Andrew in Iwate says:

    I don’t think “ganbare” necessarily means rebuilding. It doesn’t mean anything specific, it only means “ganbare!” When I hear it, I think it’s meant to encourage those affected to get their lives back together, look to the future and have hope. Giving up (諦め) isn’t an option in terms of people’s livelihood. Saying “ganbare” isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing I think.

    In the specific case of Kamaishi, I don’t think giving up is a realistic option. Dangerous or not, Kamaishi’s topography has economic value. It’s port makes it a good place for shipping and industry. History shows that people will eventually forget about the tsunami and want to move back in and make a living. I think it’s best that the city plans for this. Personally I hope they clear forests and level off mountains rather than depend on a sea wall though. In any case, I think they have no choice but to “ganbaru.”

  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; Japan lost the war, so ‘banzai!’ as a symbolic expression of national unity is so non-PC. That’s the social and cultural void that ‘ganbare!’ fills. My Japanese friends can be coerced into joining the chant of ‘ganbare’ by peer group pressure, and the fear that if they don’t join in, then they will be seen as not ‘proper’ Japanese by the others.
    As far as rebuilding any town damaged by the earthquake and the tsunami goes, why don’t we do a cost/benefit analysis? Given Japans crushing national debt, how can it make sense to rebuild economically dying communities with shrinking populations of primarily old people who will never pay back enough tax to cover the costs? Shouldn’t the government relocate all those people and then focus on the problem of how they will pay their pensions instead?
    I guess the J-gov will never let common sense get in the way of ‘napoleon syndrome’ national pride.

  • I always used to think that “ganbaru” and “gaman suru” were from the same root word, but correct me if I m wrong but they are not. Ganbaru is to do ones best, gaman is to “endure/suffer”.
    However, the reality is that they are linked in practice; when told to “ganbatte/ganbare”, the “honne” is it means “gaman” or put up or shut up!

    I think the people of Tohoku are enduring, ie. suffering and the cry of “ganbare Tohoku” from affluent Tokyoites in their relatively safe, ivory towers, must ring pretty hollow.

    Japan is about the only country I know that is still highly centralized. Time for devolution of more powers to local areas so they can look after themselves, and not just be told to “ganbare” (gaman) or is this talk of “moving the capital” just the same old talk it was back in the 1980s (Saitama was considered as a new location, hardly a major relocation at all, but I digress).

  • So what I mean to say is, the essence of what it is to be “Japanese” is not the smiley “ganbare”, it is in fact “GAMAN”.

    And that is why this website exists, because people have not complained enough or been listened enough to in the years after the war, so they have no choice but to “gaman”. Shoganai dakara (another catch-all for giving up and putting up).

    e.g. Massive demonstrations in the 60s against the renewal of the Japan-US treaty? Tough, it is renewed. Gaman shite kudasai.
    Want to relocate that U.S. base off Okinawa, even though it was voted for? Sorry, no way. Gaman shite kudasai.
    Cannot pay an e.g. unfair city tax bill? Sorry, it is your duty as a citizen to pay it (as opposed to citizens in western countries which have more of a culture of civil disobedience to change a law). Do whatever sleazy job it takes to pay it.

    Gaman shite ne.

    — We’re getting a little off track.

  • I’m willing to bet, without the benefit of any data, that more money, supplies and resources were donated to the Tohoku victims with the “Ganbare Nippon!” slogan than would have been without it. If we look at it as a slogan, in the context of what slogans are for, I’m guessing it served its purpose well. Could there have been a better, more erudite slogan? Possibly. That’s not really what’s important though, is it?

    “Keep your meaningless platitudes to yourself if you don’t live round here”? Now, that’s pretty offensive to all those who mobilized under the “Ganbare Nippon!” banner and actually did something to help.

  • I think the amount of donations had much, much more to do with (the fitting) media saturation by the terrible story coming out of northeastern Japan. The slogan is de minimus and could have been replaced by any other number of slogans. Here’s one, “what have you done lately to help Tohoku get back on its feet?”

    I live in a country that spun enough stupid slogans after 911 to both choke a horse and fill a book. Honest sacrifice was the thing that was lost among the cacophony.

  • Hoofin: The yellow ribbons in the U.S. were part of a charity. A percentage of the purchase price was donated to charities that help soldiers and their families. Everything else you said is spot-on.

    Beneaththewheel: If you ask an Australian about the word “reckon”, you will get a different nuance than if you ask an American. The word means the same thing, but the usage differs. So too, in Japan, words’ nuances may differ. However, given the relative familiarity (with Japanese language) of the people posting here, “gambare” is not a big reach.

    As Japanese tends to be situational in use, it is appropriate that (for lack of a better term?) gambare is in common use today. It is tiring, and has been over-used, but it is the only appropriate word given the situation.

    Jim Di Griz: “banzai” was offensive BEFORE Japan lost the war.

    rebuilding – I agree with your analysis, however, when you factor in pride, how can the GOJ NOT say they are going to rebuild? In a rich, powerful nation (as Japan still sees itself), rebuilding is the ONLY acceptable option. To admit that an area that was previously an economically viable, productive part of the nation, is not worth the money to rebuild (or GOJ just can’t afford to), is to admit defeat. I personally doubt the degree to which rebuilding will occur, but I do not expect anyone in Japan to admit that the area will remain largely as is.

    In the U.S., the rebuilding of New Orleans was largely a City/State issue (with federal money included). In Japan’s centralized government style, NOT saying you are going to rebuild is just not an option.

    Ril: Right on!

    I’m done. Thank you.

  • @Ril,
    I bought some beer in August i the supermarket. The stupid poster above the shelf said ‘頑張れ日本!’. I don’t have the faintest idea how shopping in Kansai makes the lives of people in Tohuku better. Do you?
    Anyhow, the Japanese better learn to ‘ganbare’ pretty good, the economy will never get better, only worse; it’s called demographics.

  • I don’t have the faintest idea how shopping in Kansai makes the lives of people in Tohuku better. Do you?

    Sure. The shop donates a percentage of profits, or some supplies, to a charitable organization that knows what do do with the money (possibly not the Japan Red Cross). Did they? I don’t know if they did or they did not, but I know they could.

  • Hi Ril

    People who actually did something to help, wonderful. People on TV saying ‘ganbare’ without really thinking about it, borderline offensive. Don’t know where you live, but it’s been a really rough six months up here. Watching overpaid celebs self-righteously tell us to hunker down and rebuild things (like, duh, what else could we possibly do?) feels like rubbing salt in. Like I said before: Tohoku needs specific policies and help from the government, not a national feelgood campaign.

    People are still waiting on rent assistance in Miyagi (supposed to have started in August) because of government delays.

  • I doubt that the slickest ad agency could come up with a slogan better suited to a pseudo-democratic, hierarchical, conformity-enforcing, authority-oriented, materialistic society than “ganbare nippon.” It’s exquisitely vague and doesn’t encourage skepticism in the least–the perfect catchphrase to bolster and perpetuate the status quo.

  • Andrew in Iwate says:

    I live on the coast of Iwate but I don’t share any of Sendaiben’s frustration with “ganbare.” Frankly, I’m happy when I hear it. This discussion here is also the first I’ve heard any frustration with it.

    I agree that government action is what’s needed most, but moral support doesn’t hurt either. I would rather leave policy making to elected officials and residents, and let celebrities do what (if little) they can besides that. In other words, I don’t think it’s a choice between hearing “ganbare” and getting real progress.

  • Bill`s comment reminds me of how Yukio Mishima, the novelist known for originally for a very ornate use of Japanese words, started to simplify his language as he moved towards (the trappings of) the Right and his brand of Nationalism. In his biography of Mishima, John Nathan says Mishima just wanted to come up all-encompassing “Empty slogans” such as “All lives to the Fatherland”. Mishima was a fantasist and not a real nationalist.

    Call me a cynic but thats what “Ganbare Nippon” reminds me of.

    Slight tangent: Ishihara misses Mishima: “Japan is not the same since with him gone, but his politics were a joke.”

    — Source for this quote please.

  • Andrew in Iwate says “I would rather leave policy making to elected officials and residents, and let celebrities do what (if little) they can besides that.”

    Ishihara was of course a celebrity with a teen cult following before he became a politician. Japan, arguably like America, loves famous names and will vote for them, even comedians like Knock Yokoyama in Osaka.

    I am just wondering if whoever came up with “Ganbare Nippon” was trying to entertain. But it makes light of what is a uniquely serious crisis.


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