Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The 'ganbatte' mentality

Something I've noticed is that an important part of the Japanese culture is to always do your best. When it comes to working, studying and especially when helping other people or providing a service for someone. It's all about how hard you try.

My challenge to you is to bother reading through this whole long text. Ganbatte kudasai!

There's a Japanese phrase that's very often used, 'ganbatte kudasai' (頑張って 下さい). 'Kudasai' just means 'please' and can be left out, so don't focus on that word too much.
This phrase is used in pretty much exactly the same contexts as in one would say 'good luck' in English. For example, before taking a test, facing a difficult task or to a person who's striving hard to reach her goals.
However, the meaning of this word (verb) 'ganbatte' is more close to 'please do your best/try your hardest' than good luck.

This captures something interesting and vital about the Japanese mentality. If you'll think strictly about the difference in the languages, it's like people in an English-speaking country (Swedish as well) would settle with just hoping that luck will give you that little extra push that you need, while the Japanese encourages to do your absolute best to manage.
'Good luck' is usually answered with 'thank you'.
In Japanese, the response to 'ganbatte kudasai' (please try your best) is usually 'hai, ganbarimasu' (yes, I am trying/will try my best) accompanied with a small bow.

I'd say that telling someone to please try their best in English often would have a slightly bad sound, as if accusing the person of not trying hard enough. That's not the case at all in Japan. Here, the most important thing is that you try hard and it's actually polite to encourage someone to do so. In the same way as it's polite to wish someone good luck in English.
You can also say 'yoku ganbarimashita' to someone (also accompanied by a bow), meaning 'you did try your best'. This phrase would in English quite surely have a slightly negative sound as in; 'you did try [but it wasn't good enough].' In Japanese it's just a way of showing respect for another person's efforts.

Of course, this difference in the languages doesn't mean that all English speaking people rely on having good luck while the Japanese push themselves to the limits, but all those small differences in the language are also part of the culture and found in everyday life, I assure you.

I guess many people have heard about the Japanese's long working hours, practically non-existing holidays and willingness to work hard. I can't say anything else than that from my experience so far, it all seems to be true.
Back home in Sweden, a job is first and foremost a way of making money to make sure you can eat food and pay the rent. Your family is the most important thing, on second place is usually your friends, free-time and hobbies and on third place is work. For some people, work might be number 2, and for a few people it might be the most important thing, it's not very common in Sweden though.

In Japan, signing that full-time contract doesn't mean you'll be working from 9 to 5 every day as it might actually say on the contract. To me, it seems more like you're signing the contract for selling your soul.
Not only will you be expected to work until the work is done, not until the hour written on your contract, which probably means very long days, you'll usually be expected to do it without any extra overtime payment and might have to work in the weekends as well. Vacations are short and even if you might be allowed to take vacation in theory, it's not really okay to do so as long as your superiors and colleagues don't take any vacation.
When you do manage to finish work for the day, you're often expected to go out and have a few drinks with your colleagues, even if your family is waiting for you at home. The group and being a part of it is a very important thing in Japan, so choosing to go home to your family instead of going out with your colleagues might mean you become an outsider at work and ruin your chances to make a career at the company.
(Edit: The Japanese companies are required to pay overtime salary for overtime work according to the law, I've heard that often they don't do it anyway though).

I do like that it's important to try your best and usually people will notice that you try hard and give you credits for it.
For example, I consider myself to be a quite ambitious student. I have decided to spend time and money on learning Japanese and it's something I want to do. For me, that means I will want to focus 100% on studying. So I prefer to do my homework and studies carefully rather than finishing it quickly so I can spend time relaxing or hanging out with friends, usually I'll have some time for that anyway. In Japan, the more ambitious students are given credits by the teachers for their efforts which the less ambitious students are not, as opposed to Sweden where the obsession of treating everyone equally has gone so far that it's absurd. A bit of competitiveness is something I think is very good.

However, studying is one thing. It's something I do because I want to learn Japanese. The question is just, when my studies has been finished, if I find a job here, am I willing to sign that contract for selling my soul to a Japanese company? After staying only a few months here, I'm getting a bit worried there's this risk my brain has turned 'ganbatte' enough after a few years.
Or maybe I'll rather go back to Sweden, find a job and enjoy my 5 weeks of vacation per year.

Finally, some examples on how this mentality takes shape.

Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, especially when providing a service for someone, it's very important to show that you do your best, which means the service at stores or restaurants in Japan is outstanding.

There's an enormous pride taken in doing your job properly, even if you have a crappy job like standing outside a parking lot with a funny flashing neon red-colored stick and directing the traffic. Even if there are hardly any cars coming and there's more than plenty of signs put up already, those guys will stand straight and make an elegant circular motion in the air with the neon stick with an enormous grace. In Sweden, we don't have those guys with the neon sticks, but if we would, probably they'd at least be looking bored and tired. In southern Europe, they would probably be sitting on a chair and sleeping at work.

One of few digitalized guys with a neon stick making sure no one parks in front of a building in Tokyo. Usually they are real guys.

If you go to a store in Japan you will notice that the staff is often running inside the store if they're going somewhere. Actually, often they'll be taking such small steps running that it's quite obviously a slower way of moving than if they'd be walking quickly. It seems to be more about showing the customers that they really are on their toes and do their best rather than getting as quickly as possible from point A to point B. The gas stations in Japan are really serious about their service though. There, it's not about fake-running, working at a gas station in Japan really means running between the cars, polishing, bowing and a lot of shouting polite phrases.

The most funny thing is how quickly you start adjusting yourself to all kinds of routines and rituals. Probably my friends will ask me what the hell I am doing when I get back to Sweden.

(For non-Swedes; yes you read it correctly, 5 weeks of vacation per year is normal in Sweden).


Gassia said...

Thanks a lot, that's a really good article!

Gassia said...

Oh! Stupid me! I forgot to ask! Can I link you on my Facebook? This article is saying something really important to me...

sakura said...

awesOme..! i'm really want to further master there..But need to apply for Monbukagakusho scholarship fisrt..U're not japanese right? U study there applying scholarship or by your ownself?

Anonymous said...

Lucky so-and-so, in South Africa we only got 14 days leave and here in the UK, 20 days :(

Anonymous said...

Thank you foe the article. The ganbatte mentality has burned my soul to dust, leaving behind a crumbling grey shell of mortality lol

Anonymous said...

"In southern Europe, they would probably be sitting on a chair and sleeping at work." HAHAAHAHAHA, NO! Your article is about the hard work that needs to be put in your job, in japan. So please don't make assumptions about southern europe, it's like crushing someone elses aspirations, we have very passionate workers, as well as lazy, so do you!