Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gaman dekinai

The culture of the Northern Hemisphere evolves from west to east with a discontinuity at the international date line. Of course this wouldn't hold up to detailed scrutiny since all I am really doing is comparing North America, Northern Europe and Japan. The simplest example, and the one I usually trot out when people ask "so what's Japan like?" is the Starbucks chocolate brownie inter-comparison project (SCBIP). In the USA and Canada you're talking a 3 inch by 3 inch square, in Europe a 3 inch by 1.5 inch rectangle and in Japan a 1.5 by 1.5 inch square. Another example is the number of times per sentence that a person says "I". In Japan that's almost never, in Europe maybe it is 1 sentence in 2 and here at Seattle airport (where I'm writing this) it is about twice per sentence, and loudly.

There are many more examples but that second one brings me to the second special Japanese behavioural characteristic (the first being moe). This one, which perhaps comes from putting societal gain before personal gain (hence the link to the preoccupation with "I"), seems more like a resource than an emotion and it is called "gaman". Linguistically it is an activity as in "gaman dekinai" = I can't do gaman. Gaman is all about putting up with things, it is patience and self-denial rolled up together. It is part of what makes society run so fantastically smoothly in Japan, although of course it is therefore also what keeps corrupt and incompetent people in power. The thing I don't know about it is whether it is true masochism - pain-without-gain - or whether people feel some sort of reward, whether they feel they are doing it for societal good, or rather out of duty. Since an obedient person is a beautiful one, I suspect there is some pleasure gained from it even if people do it only out of duty.

So, continuing the NHemisphere evolution with longitude theory, while Americans complain at the slightest discomfort (~60% of US births involve an epidural), the Brits whine endlessly to those around them but don't actually make a public fuss quite so often (~40% epidural) but the Japanese don't merely not complain but generally smile through it (you pretty much have to choose a special hospital that caters to westerners if you want the possibility of *any* pain relief with child-birth). Of course in childbirth there is a perceived gain, but gaman is everywhere - the smiling shop worker who stands in her stilletos the whole day long yet offers perfect patient service, the salaryman working ridiculously long hours and sacrificing his weekends to lose convincingly at golf to clients of his company, the game of sardines played peacefully each day on the trains, putting up with your funny gaijin neighbours (that's us!)... On that last one, I told some American friends of my Dad in Boulder (where I've just been on hols) that I wasn't sure if we disturb our Japanese neighbours playing movies at night, and she asked me if they bang on the walls. She said this like such a thing might be a hint, but not necessarily proof! I was stunned. Of course they don't bang on the walls, or complain in any way that is apparent to me, but that doesn't mean we don't disturb them.

I think I can do moe a little but gaman I'm no good at at all. When I get a headache I take a painkiller. I can do some minor pain-with-gain. For example, I like wearing myself out cycling and climbing mountains. It is not always fun in itself (although it often is) but there are so many gains - great views, a feeling of being fit, a big dinner, and maybe a day recovering lazing round at home. But pain-without-gain, which I suspect is true gaman, I am nowhere near mastering. When my boss (who appears to have an infinite resource of gaman and no sense of time whatsoever) carries on a meeting 5 minutes over its scheduled time I start to get shuffly, and at 20 minutes I complain and at 30 I stake a claim to the canteen and force an end to the meeting. I think there may be some pride in gaman, the evidence being incidents such as a number of meetings I have attended, which have been concluded by others making statements like "Julia is bored" or "Julia looks hungry". If nothing else this means my inability to do gaman is all too obvious to all around.



Tony Lee said...

Excellent post Jules, but don't sell yourself short. When I was a gaijin, I was told by some of my J-workers that they liked having gaijin around to have an excuse to act a little "selfish" -- surely a word that translates badly!

But that raises a point I've been wondering about. A lot of posts here have been about slapping down the shoddy science of climate denialists, but much of that is from the US, UK and Canada. I know for a fact there's also an awful lot in Australia and New Zealand. But what about Japan? Have you encountered climate "scepticism" there? Have your Japanese colleagues? Just curious.

James Annan said...


I've not seen evidence of scepticism here (the main-stream media is very mainstream), but I've heard from colleagues that it does exist.

Akasofu is apparently a fairly high-profile sceptic, but he's a long-term ex-pat in Alaska.

Brian said...

My brief experience in Japan was that gaijin were allowed behaviors that nihonjin weren't. (At least it was allowed for white gaijin.)

A silver lining for the costs of non-acceptance....

James Annan said...

Japanese people also seem to be able to be amazingly rude to each other so long as they do it in English...