Perseverance is one of most present values in Japan, it’s strongly entrenched inside Japanese society. A value transmitted from generation to generation which is one of the foundations of Bushido. Life is not only about dreaming and starting different projects, it’s also about being persevering and insisting on turning into reality what you are determined to achieve. Maybe the perseverance of Japanese people is one of the reason why Japan managed to become the second economy in the world after being defeated and destroyed during World War II.

Think for a moment in some manga or anime plot in which the main character is a kid with little talent and many defects but has an objective to fulfill, a true purpose of life. The main character perseverance will make him learn from his errors, becoming wiser and better on what he does until turning into some kind of hero. Now compare that to the typical hero of an American comic or TV show who is already a hero with amazing innate superpowers from the beginning; even though they are also persevering in a different way to the Japanese on getting what they want, they are very ambitious.

Another typical characteristic of Japanese heroes in movies and manga is that their objectives are easy, simple and pure; they usually don’t have great ambitions. There are many manga in which the main character wants to be a great sushi chef, wants to be the best TV anchor in his province, wants to be a good real estate seller; there is even a TV show about the life of the Shinkansen hostesses and how they struggle to serve the clients better and better. The objectives are simple, in which Japanese viewers can easily identify themselves. However, their insistence to achieve those “simple” goals will enable them to fulfill much greater achievements. Think for example in the main characters of Dragon Ball or Naruto, both of them have a pure and innocent heart and, at the beginning, definitely they’re not the best at what they do (fighting), but thanks to their perseverance they will accomplish great things eventually.

Along with perseverance, another related value very cultivated by Japanese people is patience. There is a Japanese proverb that says something like “if you want to warm a rock sit on it for 100 years”. Japanese people are extremely patient, but not only in the sense of waiting and doing nothing, but in the sense of being insistent and being patient until getting the desired purpose.

The value of perseverance is also present in the Japanese language and in many expressions that are used daily. One of the first words that we learn in Japanese is “ganbarimasu” 頑張ります that is usually translated as “do your best”. However if we take a careful look at the kanji characters that compose the word ganbarimasu we have 頑 which means (stubborn, firmly) and 張 which means (stretch, extend). In other words, the “meaning” that a Japanese person feels when saying “ganbarimasu” would be something like “Extend your stubbornness to the maximum”. The word “ganbarimasu” and also the variation “ganbatte kudasai” which means “Do it the best you can” (common translation) / “Be stubborn and firm until you get what you want” (my translation) are used a lot to cheer people up at work, in sports, studying, etc.

For example, if in Spain a friend is studying hard for an exam and I say goodbye to him the day before, I would say to him “Ánimo y mucha suerte” (which translates into English something like “Cheer yourself up and good luck”. We usually use the word “ánimo”, which comes from the Latin word “anima, animus” which means “soul”. I suppose that what we are really saying when giving “ánimo” to someone before an exam is that our soul is with them or maybe that we give “energy to their soul” so that they will be able to pass the exam. On the other hand in Japanese language before an exam I would simply say “ganbatte kudasai” that would mean something like “Do your best”/”Be stubborn and firm in the exam”. Notice how in the Japanese case there is not any luck element or any soul implications; we are simply saying him to do the best he can, to be persevering.

Perseverance can be “good” but also can turn out to be “stubborn or pigheaded” if you take it to the extreme. Frequently Japanese people don’t know how to measure their perseverance and end up being very stubborn, even to annoying limits. For example in the business world, Japanese companies are known to be very “stubborn”.

Before I’ve compared American comics to Japanese manga. In manga the heroes have pure and simple objectives they pursue with perseverance while in American comics heroes usually have innate powers and great goals to reach with ambition. United States and its companies have dominated the world thanks to thousands of different factors, but maybe one of the most important ones is the ambition of its people; on the other hand in Japan ambition is not important (in fact it is disapproved) and what brought them to world stardom was their perseverance. Perseverance o ambition? What is more important?

One difference between United States, Japan and Spain (my home country) is how “failure” is viewed. In United States, people even brag about their “failures”, pointing out the errors committed and what was learned to improve in the future. In Japan, “failure” is usually shared among the members of a group, team or family, so that the pressure doesn’t fall upon only one person; moreover everybody will cheer everybody up in the group using expressions like “ganbarimasu”. On the other hand in Spain if you fail then… you are a failure! and many people around will talk about it. I remember that when I was a teenager I was very scared of “failing”, but then one professor taught me that “the important thing is not how many times you fall, but how many times you stand up”. Maybe it’s one of the most important lessons I learned in high school. I write”failure” in quotation marks because I don’t like the word at all, I don’t believe in failure.

I think that combining a little bit of the American ambition and a little bit of the Japanese perseverance would be the perfect mix. Notice that I said a little bit because the extremes are never good, I don’t like them; in fact ambition without limits has brought to Americans very bad things; and the exaggerated perseverance of Japanese people have made them look very stubborn and very difficult to deal with in the business world.

5 replies on “Perseverance”

I love that when studying Japanese, you are also studying the culture and values of the people through their language. Great article and in depth analysis into a very commonly heard phrase!

I agree wiht the idea, and you certainly have some strong, accurate points; however, I don’t think the idea is absolutely pervasive. For instance, at the start of Dragonball Goku actually is a pretty competent fighter and has skin that bullets bounce off of. Likewise the characters in Kubo’s (Bleach creator) earlier manga Zombie Powder are likewise nigh invincible from the get go; though they face other super powerful beings it rarely seems like they’re in any real danger. Take Trigun for example as well with central character Vash the Stampede whose real struggle is defending others, but not really overcoming his own inadequacies — given, he does have a definite purpose in life, but this is true of almost any hero. Perseverance is definitely a central issue in many manga, but it’s not on its own. Also you mention simple goals and then Naruto… the central character of which, Naruto, wants to become the head of all the ninja in his city, if not the greatest ninja ever — a relatable character for kids but certainly not a commonplace goal. One Piece, like Naruto, is another super-popular manga right now about finding the greatest treasure on earth.

I’ve gone on long enough, but my point is simply that while these observations are interesting there are many things to the contrary in both cultures. Neither culture is so simple or succinct to not also recognize the values that are promoted in the other, and in many cases, even find them equally meritorious.

Comments are closed.