Japanese Gambaru – Literal Meaning and Cultural Impact

The word Gambaru in Japanese means doing one’s best and hanging on to the bitter end. This means that students gambaru study hard to pass exams, athletes gambaru practice hard to wins games, and company workers gambaru work hard to increase sales. It also means to work hard or patiently, to insist on having one’s way, and to occupy one place and never leave, as in relation to working on a job or at a place of employment. Gambaru is also rooted in the following proverb, “The monk who does not work should not eat.”

There is an imperative form of “gambaru, which is Gambare or Gambette. The imperative term connotes high achievement, motivation, and orientation to group harmony. The term is also used among members to encourage others in group activity.

The Japanese people use the term gambare quite often and for various reasons. They normally use the term at least once per day with saying good-bye and also at the ending of a letter. The Japanese also use this expression to encourage one another with the implication of “Please keep up your hard work until your goal is achieved.”

The term is also used in many situations as a form of expression. The Japanese may use the expression in the initial states of a project. For example:

a) After the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, the slogan Gambare Kobe was used to encourage the people of Kobe to reconstruct their city and rebuild their lives.

b) Japanese people also use the expression among group members to encourage one another in cooperative activities. For example, during track and field days at school, children can be heard shouting “gambare” or “gambatte” to encourage their friends in the race.

c) Japanese people also use the expression as spectators to cheer on their team. For example, in the 1998 World Cup soccer match held in France, the Japanese spectators cheered the slogan Gambare Nippon! During the championship, the slogan was used on TV programs and commercials every day.

The literal meaning of gambaru is “to adhere to something with tenacity.” It is a very popular term used when encouraging someone undertaking a very difficult task. Additional meanings are: Hang in there, Don’t give up, Do your best, and Give it your all! The term also means work hard and patiently. Additionally, it exhorts enthusiasm and hard work from others.

Gamburu also has some additional meaning, some of which could be considered as negative connotations. Based on the denotation form of the word, it also means “to insist on having one’s ways,” and “to occupy one place and never leave.” Additionally, the word is derived from ga-o-haru, which means “to be self-willed.” This expression originally had a negative connotation of asserting oneself against group decisions and norms.

One may ask if other languages have the equivalent of gambari. According to Amanuma (1987, pp. 51-53), gambari, which is derived from gambaru, does not have any exact equivalent in non-Japanese languages. Additionally, Amanuma states, “Even though both Chinese and Korean have the characters that make up gambaru (gambari is derived from gambaru), they do not have expressions that possess the same nuances. This suggests that gambaru is an expression that is unique to Japan and expresses certain qualities of the Japanese character.

There are various proverbs that may show a difference between Japanese culture and American culture as it relates to the virtues of Gambaru. One proverb based on Japanese culture states, “The monk who does not work should not eat.” This speaks to the fact that one must work and that through working one is able to live. The Japanese did not take into account play or free time in this proverb, unlike Americas in the following proverb.

Alternatively, an American proverb states, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” This implies that one does not have to work but rest and play. It places play and work in the same category, and on the same level which equate to virtue. The account of play in this proverb gives the Japanese a feeling of uneasiness regarding the virtues of Gambaru in American terms.

© Joseph S. Spence, Sr., 8/16/09

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Submitted by “Epulaeryu Master.”