There are a number of themes that run through the average Japanese person’s life. Not wanting to cause other people trouble (meiwaku o kakeru koto) is one; being mindful of other’s feelings or needs (ki o tsukau koto) is another. These two alone dictate how one acts among strangers and colleagues. A salaryman will forego taking time off to vacation with family because he is loath to make his co-workers work extra while he’s away. A Japanese student who speaks fluent English after having lived abroad will refrain from correcting her English teacher’s mistakes so as to not embarrass the teacher. And so on.
The most pervasive theme influencing the lives of the Japanese, however, is gaman--that is, patience, endurance, and perseverance. Alex Kerr writes of this in his excellent study of the failings of modern Japan in Dogs and Demons: “There is one more important lesson to be learned: schooling in Japan involves a surprising amount of pain and suffering, which teaches students to gambare, a word that means ‘to persevere’ or ‘endure.’ On this subject Duke writes: ‘To survive, the Japanese people have always had to gambare--persevere, endure--because life has never been, and is certainly not now, easy nor comfortable for most Japanese.’ Definitely not. Even when suffering is not naturally present, schools add it artificially. Elementary-school students must adapt their bodily functions to the rules--or suffer.”
Having lived in Japan as long as I have, I’m quite familiar with the silliness that masquerades as discipline. Understand the Spartan vein that runs so very deep within the Japanese psyche and you’ll start making inroads into understanding the often inscrutable behavior of the Japanese people around you. That said, I still find myself flabbergasted by the things I sometimes hear ordinarily reasonable Japanese say.
Take my wife, for instance.
Yesterday, she announced that she was going to wean our nine-month-old son off breast milk. Good idea, I thought. After six months or so, the health benefits of a mother’s milk are negligible and the sooner we start weaning him the easier it’ll be on all of us.
I envisioned a gradual disengagement, a steady decrease in the number of breast-feedings over a period of time, much like the conditions-based withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. My wife, however, had a very different idea.
Weaning, I’ve just discovered, doesn’t quite translate into Japanese as neatly as you might think. Whenever I say, “wean”, I tend to include imaginary hyphens and spaces between each letter of the word: w - e - a - n. (The truth be told, at forty something years of age, I still haven’t completely w - e - a - n - ed myself off of the tit. But, that’s another story.)
For my wife weaning was a matter of all or nothing. The baby was supposed to go cold turkey. One day he’s breast-feeding, the next he isn’t. Full stop. The word she used for this was interesting: sotsunyū (卒乳), literally, graduation from the breast. Our son had graduated from the breast and he was now going to have to persevere, that is gaman.
“Utter nonsense,” thought I, as I reached for Dr. Benjamin Spock’s classic book on childcare off and started to thumb through the section on breast-feeding.
While we’re on the subject of gaman, permit me to tell you a little story.
I was riding the “highway bus” from Iizuka back to Fukuoka yesterday afternoon when a young woman sitting in the row just in front of me took her cosmetics out of her handbag and started to do her face.
This doesn’t bother me the way it can rile some Japanese, older Japanese women in particular, who think these younger women should avoid causing trouble to strangers (meiwaku o kakenai koto) by showing some self-control and refraining from putting their faces on in public (gaman suru) as it might upset the people around them (ki o tsukau). Got that?
Well, as this young woman was putting the final touches on, she pulled out a bottle of perfume and gave herself a couple of shots, the second blast hitting me right in the face. Had it been one of your better scents, I might have been able to stand it, but the little bugger’s choice of perfume was awful. It was toilet water in the very literal sense of the word.
When I opened the window a few inches to clear the air, a man in his sixties who was sitting across the aisle from me immediately told me to shut it. Not wanting to hurt the young woman’s feelings by saying out loud that she stank like a five-dollar whore, I gestured to the man that it smelled bad and I would close the window in a mo . . .
“Shut the window!”
“I will in a moment.”
“Shut it now!”
“Just five minutes,” I said.
“Everyone’s cold. Shut the window!”
The old man’s suggestion that I was causing trouble for the other passengers (our friend meiwaku o kakeru koto, again) by opening the window and ventilating the cabin really ticked me off, so I turned to him and rather forcefully said, “Gaman shité kudasai.” (Please be patient.)
Oh, the look on the old man’s face!
“W-w-what did you say?” he blustered.
“Gaman shirō!” (Deal the fuck with it!)
And deal with it he did. Quietly.
 Kerr, Alex, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001, p.289.