Beware the dark side of gambaru

Just the other day on Clubhouse, I was talking to a group of people about Japanese culture. And one thing that came up was the topic of gambaru.

I’m not sure when this gambaru term, especially in the gambatte form, seeped into common knowledge overseas. It’s probably through manga and anime, though I guess also the tendency of especially the English speaking world to only half-understand Japanese terms and then mythologize them (see Ikigai) also plays a part. Side note: the fact as of June 2021 that Wikipedia has an English article on gambaru but no Japanese article heavily hints at this.

But anyway, yes Japan has a worldwide reputation of working hard. Maybe too hard in fact given that the term karoshi is also now quite known abroad. But many people do see the kind of Japanese earnestness in their work as an ideal to emulate.

But hold on a second…

This was not the tone of the conversation that we had.

You see, the consensus in that group – which included both Japanese people and foreign residents in Japan – was that gambaru is not necessarily positive. In my experience and that of the people around me too – many of us graduate from university and enter our first job fully expecting to and very eager to gambaru.

And we do. But sooner or later something seems off. After all, when looking at some of our workplace dysfunction, and more widely Japan’s slipping in competitiveness, stagnant wage growth etc. the wider question is: for a country which works so hard – why are so many things hardly working?

I usually write articles with numbers and facts about Japanese HR, but I really felt that I wanted to write a fully subjective and opinionated dissection of this gambaru thing. Firstly, in order to add nuance to this gambaru but also as an explanation to anyone who is thinking of coming to Japan or going to start work in Japan – so that you don’t get confused.

There are two main factors here which lead to many people feeling that gambaru is off. Number one, cultural nuance. Honestly, most cultures in the world see “working hard” as a virtue. But “working hard” can mean very different things in different cultures and in this article I want to examine more about the Japanese flavor of working hard – ie. gambaru.

The second question is if the Japanese are actually gambaru-ing. After all, even if a cultural concept still exists it doesn’t mean that people are necessarily following it. This will be examined in a different article.

The tone of this article is going to be critical – not to trash gambaru – but because I think aside from the karoshi element, most people recognize gambaru at its best. But it also is improtant to take a look when gambaru backfires.

What does gambaru mean?

I need to start from etymology first – because the English “work hard” or “good luck” or “do your best” loses a lot of context of what gambaru means really.

There are a few explanations of the etymology of gambaru. One I heard (actually from that clubhouse room) was that it came from 我を張る (ga o haru, closest English translation being “sticking to your guns”). In this explanation gambaru actually came from a very selfish beginning in actually meaning someone keeping to their beliefs and stances without changing.

My own take (and which is how it is written in kanji now) is that it is directly 頑を張る (gan o haru). Gan(頑) has a meaning – which can be seen from words like 頑丈 – of “resoluteness” and “perseverence”. But the other side of the coin is that that same kanji – especially when used alone as 頑(かたくな) has connotations of “inflexibility” and “bull-headedness”.

This is why my own favored translation of gambaru is actually not “work hard” or “do your best” – gambaru in what its kanji really says is closer to the English “keep at it” or “keep going”.

Process vs Results

Sometimes detours are the faster way to get to your destination

The above already should start hinting at the drawbacks of gambaru.

In essence, gambaru is a very respect-the-process driven way of thinking where you – in short – keep doing things until they get done or to mastery. Think about what people admire about Japan and you can see the benefits – attention to detail in cuisine, customer service, tenacity in sports etc. In short, in situation where practice makes perfect or hard work really brings rewardsgambaru is actually a very good thing to have. And gambaru is also underscored with a strong undertone of perfectionism too.

However, what happens when the process is wrong? After all, working hard is not the same as working smart.

Strong engine, poor rudder

And sometimes there is an iceberg in front of you
And sometimes there is an iceberg in front of you

One big issue about gambaru culture is its inflexibility when changing times demand a change in approach. After all, if the essence of gambaru is to just keep going at things – and until “perfection” at that – what happens when the rules of the game entirely change?

For example, it seems so long ago, but the world was once in awe at Japanese feature phones – they could watch TV, have online forums etc. No doubt the Japanese gambaru culture and perfectionism then caused the Japanese phones to be around 5-10 years ahead of the rest of us playing Snake on Nokia phones.

Right now the best selling phone even within Japan now is the iPhone. Even among Android smartphones, some sources place Samsung as the second largest smartphone maker in Japan. In fact, much of the Japanese smartphone makers’ market share is still being propped up by the shrinking sales of “feature phones” – ie. the descendents of the original Japanese type phone.

Were the Japanese manufacturers not gambaru-ing while all this happened? Of course they were – probably with heavy overwork too. But gambaru (and the incremental kaizen approach) does not account for what happens when the game itself changes (the feature phone to smartphone shift) nor is it necessarily a strong defence when a cheaper but similar option comes.

I want to also state that particularly in the field of software where I work, gambaru culture is actually a huge impediment. In a field where agility and experimentation is much more important than perfection, gambaru culture is partly why Japanese mobile game firms take 3 times the time to release one game than overseas studios – and not at a significantly higher success rate. (Numbers quoted from a friend of mine who works at an international game publisher)

Gambaru and gaman

There is another “ga” that goes naturally with gambaru though – gaman (我慢). To quote the Smithsodiangaman is “[the] Japanese word that means to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.” And clearly, this sense of respect for dignified suffering may be what allows the Japanese society to hold together during crisis times and in more normal times, for students to deal with the grueling conditions of school bukatsu and cramming schools and for working people to handle ridiculous overtime hours.

So what is the dynamic that this has with gambaru? Well, gambaru is unpleasant. No one really actually likes doing overtime until the last train. Neither do does anyone actually want to spend 8 hours a day studying for an entrance exam. However, it is precisely the ability to self-sacrifice (gaman) that allows someone to keep at it (gambaru) all the way to their future success.

What’s the problem then? Well, when gaman and gambaru get too intertwined, the result is that people start seeing the signs of self-sacrifice as signs of hard work. When this combination is taken to its extreme, unless the person is suffering, they are not working hard.

An example

There’s a real life example of a friend here – let’s call him Joe. He works in one of the big Japanese tech firms which everyone knows at as a product manager. There was another product manager – let’s call him Nick – working on a separate but similar product with him.

Joe knew what he was doing and therefore did the necessary planning, specifications and all that kind of stuff that one could consider proper product management. The product was developed and released on time with no major hiccups. The team involved were able to go back home on time.

Nick however, overplanned some stuff and underplanned others (tech people should understand this) and so the scheduling was off. Off in the sense that as the deadline approached, it was increasingly clear that corners had to be cut OR serious overtime had to be put in.

Given that this is Japan and gambarimasho, well overtime was the way to go and so that team stayed back for the last few months until release and gambaru-ed all the way. They squeaked by the deadline though who knows what kinds of programming bugs are hidden underneath the code with all the rushing.

Guess who got the promotion? Well, Nick did. People could see Nick staying back and doing gambaru through the project after all – whereas Joe (and team) were going home on time – clearly not gambaru-ing.

In this way, gambaru when intertwined with gaman is really one reason why there is a big culture of overwork here – and sometimes for little more than to show that you are sacrificing yourself. The additional risk too is that this kind of mentality nudges people to endure for example, work harrassment or other kinds of things because self-sacrifice is seen as inherently part of working hard.

“Japanese people love a good huddle”

The above was what one of the Clubhouse speakers said and this perfectly encapsulated another thing that I felt off about Japanese gambaru. Gambaru as a word can and is definitely used for individuals – someone is gambaru-ing at practicing for a musical recital which is part of their hobbies for example. When it comes to the workplace and in social contexts though, gambaru can usually be rewritten as “gambaru – as defined by the group and for the group”.

What does it mean in practice? One of the most common situations that foreigners in Japanese companies face is that they gambaru by taking individual initiative, only to forget the layering of Japanese teamwork concepts of horenso (Japanese internal communications), nemawashi (testing the waters) and the sempai kohai relationship. Gambaru is usually secondary to all these.

Group gambaru versus individual initiative

For example, you know your team has a problem with having to do manual calculations over and over for accounting. You create an Excel macro to solve this and proudly present it to your superior.

There is actually a very fair chance that the superior will – after taking a few seconds of surprise – give you the Japanese half smile, thank you for your work, promise to take a look at it and forget / ignore it after. This is because one key factor for horenso is to avoid surprising your co-workers and superiors – your unannounced initiative can be very effective but the fact that it was not pre-cleared makes it not part of the workflow and possibly brushed aside.

The same goes for meetings and how gambaru is expected to be done in the context of nemawashi. Foreigners at meetings often take gambaru to mean asking questions and suggesting things at meetings to show that you are interested and actively thinking about things. Only to meet with slight nods, “let’s discuss this a separate time” – which never comes to pass.
(Side note: this is also, in my opinion, why some foreigners misinterpret things and feel that they are not being listened to because they’re foreigners. Racism and not-listening-to-the-foreigner does exist but it may be timing – ever the finicky question in Japan – that is the problem.)

But anyway in this way gambaru may not actually mean taking the initiative. When combined with the sempai/kohai relationship dynamics actually, gambaru is more likely expected to be earnestness in following orders and respecting the togetherness of the organization.

The dark side of this is also how gambaru is easily weaponized against people who quit. Japanese traditional companies have a very nasty tendency to give a very cold shoulder – if not directly personally attack – employees who quit them (for further career progression for example) as traitors who not only did not gambaru enough but also did not gaman and gambaru enough for the team.

Nuance nuance nuance

Now, this article writes clearly about the dark side of gambaru culture and therefore takes a critical tone. I do however want to make clear that I do not think that gambaru is a bad thing. All of the above have their plus sides – who cares if you have a bad rudder if you’re going in the right direction? Similarly, there are situations where gaman is definitely needed – in addition to the kind of close-knit teamwork that we see here. I also personally do think that the Japanese are also much more earnest and willing to do things without complaining than many other cultures in the world.

What I want to describe is the gap between the “idealized” gambaru and the reality which occurs in Japanese society – which can be very stark for people who just start working in Japan. The secondary point I want to bring up (as hinted above) is that beyond just ending this article on a non-commital “there are pluses and minuses” note, I want to ask whether the full set of gambaru culture is really relevant and effective in the modern age and economy.

Do note that (as I keep saying in all my articles), how strong the trends above depend heavily on the different segments of Japanese society. IT, which I work in, is more fluid with freelancers and more foreigners working here. I therefore personally feel that the gambaru around me is more moderated than what I describe above.

Hope this sheds some light on this concept – and do keep an eye out for the follow up article to this where I talk about whether Japanese society really gambaru, even following the definition above.

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