Gaman culture

The Japanese word 'gaman' (pronounced gah'mahn) roughly means 'to put up with something', to endure, to persevere. When people are standing in an over-crowded train at 30C tightly packed together like sardines without complaining, they are putting up with it. When someone works at the same company for three years even though his salary is shit, he is forced to work an additional 30 hours overtime each week and he hates his manager, he is putting up with it. When someone is opening a business bank account at a certain British bank even though the banker is treating him poorly and not making him look forward to having the account, he is putting up with it.

The last example, obviously based on myself, reflects how I changed in regard to this since I came to London, because I did not put up with it, and I have no plan of putting up with it in the future. Having been 'raised' in society by the Japanese (all my real interactions with society after uni happened in Japan) I always used to put up with a lot of things. I was never bothered by this because I saw other people in Japan doing the same thing and I just mimicked their behaviour. I also never had to put myself in any situation where I had to really put up with something. In all fairness it was smooth sailing all the way, right up until I left Japan.

When moving to the UK I was pretty much the same, thinking if I put up with things they'll eventually go away or cease to bother me. Then, as I started working in London, having to deal with moving, taxes, bank accounts, estate agents, my patience kept getting shorter and shorter. I ceased to be able to put up with things any more. In some ways, this is a good thing. It means I'll now cut the bullshit banker talk and walk out when I see no good outcome. It also means I'll have more trouble finding a new apartment because my criteria just went through the roof. This, by the way, has to do with my previous post about letting your guard down. You can try and put up with something assuming things will get better or it won't be as bad as it seems. Sometimes you'll get lucky and you'll deal with sincere people who will not take advantage of you and take you at face value. But sometimes (most of the time?)  things are exactly as bad as they seem and you'd better cover your ass before you start doing anything. But that's another story.

The gaman mindset is one of refusing to acknowledge anything you don't like. You refuse to even think the thought of 'not liking' something, instead you'll just think to yourself "I'll put up with it" and focus on something else instead. Personally I think there's only a very few cases where this could be the correct solution, with most of life's serious problems requiring a more pro-active approach, but I do admire the mindset. Because I've seen people practising this and, if done properly, you truly do cleanse your mind of the bad thing that was bothering you just a minute before. It's a form of mastery over your own mind that is commendable. And, as Japan proves, if all of society practices it, the end result is (paradoxically?) not bad.

As I final thought, I can't help but be reminded by the prisoner's dilemma again. The prisoner's dilemma has been on my mind a lot lately and somehow I keep finding real-life situations where it's applicable. This is another one: if everyone gamans then nobody suffers a disadvantage, but as soon as one person starts complaining (to himself) about something and ceases to put up with things, he will end up striving for a better position compared to the gaman people. Going for individual gain rather than societal gain, perhaps? If everyone plays the non-gaman strategy (UK) or the gaman strategy (JP) then society is stable, but a mix of strategies will result in a disadvantage for some.

Posted in Japan , Thoughts , UK