Ganbatte! The Japanese Art of Always Moving Forward

Albert Liebermann

Albert Liebermann is a writer and philosopher. He studied art and literature in Europe before moving to Japan. He enjoys playing piano, traveling the world and hanging out with his cat.

Just as in many countries people say “good luck” before someone takes an exam, has a job interview or begins a competition, the Japanese say “ganbatte” to encourage the person to make an effort. 

Through this book’s 50 inspiring chapters, we shall get acquainted with this Japanese philosophy of tenacity and resilience, which is the art of overcoming adversity.

If you apply the tenacity and resilience of the Japanese to your everyday life, difficult things become easy and the impossible becomes possible.

This book touches on the expression ganbatte: the term that Japanese use to encourage themselves. In this review, let’s see how people can practice ganbatte: doing one’s best despite life challenges.

Ganbatte!

Ganbaru is a Japanese verb that we could translate as “Do your best,” “Don’t give up,” “Stand Firm,” “Work at something,” or “Persevere.”

In many cultures, before an acquaintance is about to face a challenge, such as a competition, an exam, or a new life adventure, we tend to wish them luck. In Japan, they use the verb “ganbaru,” conjugated in the second person form: “ganbatte.”

When we say, “Good luck,” it appears the result is in the hands of fate and outside our control. Whereas, in Japanese, when we say “Ganbatte!” to someone, what we are conveying is that a great deal of what they are going to have to face depends on them.

The philosophical message of ganbatte is: “Do everything you can the best you know how, and if things don’t turn out as you would like them to, that’s fine; you don’t need to feel bad, because you did everything that was in your power.”

If you have done your best, it doesn’t matter if the result is not what you were hoping for, because you know in your heart that you didn’t waste the opportunity.

This reminds me of the kodawari (the relentless pursuit of paying great attention to the fine details of one’s work). In a conversation with neuroscientist and author, Ken Mogi, he shared that kodawari is the idea that people have their own rules, their standards, and even if it’s not supported by the customer or would be appreciated by the market, they do their kodawari anyway -- even if other people won’t notice, they do what they want to do. 

It doesn’t matter if you gain recognition for what you do, you just keep on doing it and always give your best because the important thing is the process itself.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa:The art of carrying on

The Great Wave off Kanagawa represents the spirit of Japan’s ganbatte; the sailor don’t give up, but row, putting all their effort into moving forward in order to live. 

On other occasions, we get stressed out by something unknown that suddenly overwhelms us emotionally. Then we are the rowers of The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Whatever the situation may be that you are facing, there is something you can always be sure of: even the most gigantic waves always break up.

We may suffer accidents or there may be times when there seems to be nothing but bad news, but whatever happens, we can always choose to fall forwards.

Kamiya Mieko, a pioneering researcher of ikigai, wrote about the importance of having the need for a bright future. When people do have a bright future, it helps them get through the struggles or problems in their lives. 

Albert mentions that we are the rowers of The Great Wave off Kanagawa – whatever difficulties we might be facing, as long as we have the urge to keep moving forward and we have the need for a bright future, we will be able to surpass those challenges.

Losing is winning

Sometimes the best option is not winning but losing.

In Japanese, there’s an expression: Makeru ga kachi – losing is winning –to remind us that there are situations in which our ego or pride make us misunderstand what a victory really is. 

You should learn to recognize those moments when losing will make you win in the long term and take other people’s feelings into consideration, not just your own. In situations where you are confronting someone or something and you feel somewhat uneasy, ask yourself: What would the result be if I lost?

In Japan, they have the term meiwaku kakenaide (don’t cause trouble). It is something instilled in them at a very young age: to not cause trouble or not bother other people. People give importance to the other person’s feelings to avoid arguments and conflicts. 

I think that it is important to hold back sometimes and consider the feelings of others – anticipate the thoughts and feelings of others, and if you don’t share the same feelings, you can hold back for the greater good of others.

The longest journeys begin with a first step

In Japanese, there is a saying: Senri no michi mo ippo kara, which means: “Even the longest journey begins with a first step.” This saying reminds us that it doesn’t matter what stage of life we are at; everything started with a first step and we are halfway to a future that we shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by. 

That initial step is the hardest one to take, but once taken, it will give you self confidence. Suddenly, you will feel able to move forward with a second step, then a third… until walking becomes instinctive. 

Finding your passion and striving for excellence within it – this a tenet of the Japanese mindset. Just as the spirit of ikigai leads us to find our bliss and our purpose, the spirit of ganbatte keeps that purpose ever-fresh as we continue to refine and perfect our craft.

I would relate this to one of Ken Mogi’s five pillars of ikigai: starting small. Ken explained that people start from scratch. Rather than focusing on their ultimate goals, people start from something small. The whole attitude of starting from small things makes people go the longest in terms of creating something wonderful.

I also think that this is similar to maintaining a beginner’s mind. When we embrace and maintain a beginner’s mind, it opens up lots of learning opportunities, lots of contemplation, and it helps us be present.

To beat the crisis

Ganbatte is seen by the Japanese as a spirit or way of being for society in general, especially at times of crisis. 

Whenever you feel like you are in crisis, either on a personal level, at your company or as a society, activate the spirit of ganbatte inside you. It will help you to focus your attention on the future, beyond the crisis, and to believe that by taking a small step each day, slowly but surely, there is always a solution in sight and the chance to create a better world.

We have all found ourselves in situations in life in which we got bogged down and decided to give up because we thought there was no way out. That tends to happen when we are blinded by stress and forget about our creative ability for finding solutions.

Don’t give up– perhaps with a little more ganbatte and imagination, a wonderful solution will emerge.

This reminds me of the term gambari (effort). In my interview with Dr. Shintaro Kono, an expert in leisure and behaviour science, Shintaro shared four key types of valued experience that contribute to having ikigai, and one of those is gambari: making efforts and overcoming challenges while thinking about long term accomplishments.

I agree that it is important to have the spirit of ganbatte – not giving up despite the trials that we encounter. I think one way to help us to keep striving in life is to have a sense of ikigai. Having something that motivates us to keep going will inspire us to do our best even when we are faced with difficulties. 

Shuhari: the mastery of the Takumis

Shuhari is a word whose origins are rooted in martial arts, noh theater, the tea ceremony and arts in general. But it is much more than a word; it is an entire philosophy condensed into three characters which guide us in the process of learning, generating ideas and activating our creativity. It is an extremely powerful tool for becoming a master at anything in life.

The concept of flow– being fully present in the activity we are doing– explores this equilibrium more deeply. A person who practices an activity in a state of flow is in the right shuhari circle for their ability. If they are not flowing, they are not in the right circle for their level. 

Shuhari is not a mere tool for creating art and learning; it is also a guide for leading us on the path to self-transformation.


Going back to the concept of kodawari, Ken Mogi stated that kodawari is synonymous with a flow state. When people reach a state of being a master, they do have this constant state of flow in which they exercise their kodawari.


The Kaizen method

Kaizen is formed in Japanese by joining kai (change) and zen (good), and together that means “change to improve,” although it is usually translated as “continual improvement.”

The continual change of kaizen is focused mainly on the process, while in the West the emphasis is generally on results.

For us, kaizen is a way of facing up to daily problems as well as being a lifestyle philosophy.

The kaizen philosophy is an excellent way of giving meaning and method to our efforts, whatever the level of excellence we may be seeking.

In my interview with engineer and author, Bob Emiliani, he shared that the purpose of kaizen is simplification: to make work easier. When work is simplified, there are fewer chances for mistakes. 

Transform your mind into water

Adaptability is a key component of success. This requires freedom from our own expectations and preconceived notions– an ability to recognize and accept what is, and fill the space accordingly. Keeping the mind open and centered– this is what it means to be like water. And this is what allows us to move forward rather than remain motionless.

This may be similar to acceptance. Accepting things as they are – the people around us, the circumstances that happen – we don’t have control over these things. What we can do is try to accept the things that we cannot control and try to live with them.

Conclusion

Talent is much more common than perseverance, but both virtues are needed for the alchemy of success. Feed your spirit by progressing each day, moving and adapting yourself…, but don’t forget the most important thing: the future you have marked out for yourself.

This book offers ganbatte rules which we can apply in our daily lives. It is a good encouragement for all of us, especially to those who find it hard to keep going in life. To have the spirit of ganbatte is really essential – giving our best in everything we do. It doesn’t matter what the result is, what’s important is the process itself – we learn something new in the process of achieving our goals.

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