Why Japan may have outgrown ‘go for it’

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Go for it! Just a few more steps! Breathe in a bit, the suit still fits!

The reason the Japanese word “gambatte!” (and the very slightly more brusque “gambare!”) is so tricky to translate lies partly in its ubiquity and partly in its versatility. 

And, perhaps now, in its inappropriateness.

In both progress and setback, the word has reigned as Japan’s supreme motivator: a nuanced, context-dependent call for effort, persistence, stubbornness, spirit and action. It is, “You can do it!” for the possible and, “Do your best!” for the impossible. To a civil engineer it is, “Make that bigger!”, to a semiconductor engineer it is, “Make that smaller!” Intoned ahead of an exam, it is “good luck!” Bellowed in a stadium or a school sports-field, it is, “Come on!” After an earthquake, it becomes a mantra to, “Pray for (insert devastated province)”.

Plenty of words (in many languages) do a disproportionate amount of cultural heavy lifting; gambatte is the Incredible Hulk of the Japanese lexicon.

But might gambatte now sound just a little bit too muscular for its own good? Has it been throwing its weight about for too long? Does it oppress? Is it triggering? Times change and so must corporate ears. Has this one-word order, for all its well-intended encouragement and heartfelt application in so much of Japanese life, quietly bullied and harassed itself out of the workplace and into the great verbal sin-bin?

These questions have unexpectedly barged into Japan’s public debate through a megahit TV drama about time travel. The show, (called Futekisetsu ni mo Hodo ga Aru! in Japanese) has recently appeared on Netflix under the title “Extremely Inappropriate”. It centres on a school baseball coach from the bubblicious, chain smoking badlands of 1986 who catches a time-travelling bus to the weirdness, wellbeing and wokery of 2024. 

The great schmaltz mines of Japanese drama have always loved a bit of satirical time travel but this one — in which the audience is invited to acknowledge that the good old days were pretty bad — is unusually well-timed and observed. At some point very soon (possibly today) the Nikkei 225 stock average looks likely to break through the record high it hit back in the lunacy of December 1989. Given how heavily that record has loomed over Japan, this is quite the moment.

The stock market’s arduous journey back to this spot has taken 34 years, involved at least two false dawns every decade and, even now, hitched a ride on a euphoria-lite rally. The societal journey has been even more challenging, and — along with its many economic and geopolitical tests — posed endless, gnawing questions around the rights and wrongs of the way Japan goes about work.

The words gambatte and gambare have been constant travelling companions for the country through all of this. But perhaps it is time to part ways. In a book published in December, the sociologist Kiyotake Okawa analyses the “light and dark sides” of gambare and whether the associated psychology of “effortism” is ultimately good for Japan in the modern age.

And so it is that, half an hour into the first episode of Extremely Inappropriate, the incredulous teacher overhears a woman at the next table explaining to her male colleagues the basis on which she has made various complaints to HR. She explains why certain common enough workplace phrases constitute ageism and sexism.

But the real show-stopper is when she cites a senior executive’s casual use of gambatte in a work context as an example of “power harassment” — the term used to cover the pernicious problem of workplace bullying and abuse in Japanese companies.

A 2016 government survey found a third of respondents had experienced some form of power harassment in the previous three years. Cases reported to labour bureaus have risen to as high as 80,000 a year. By 2022, legal revisions obliged companies of all sizes to tackle the problem.

The issue raised in the TV show is that, while there may indeed be a huge expanse of context in which gambatte is absolutely harmless, it is both grammatically and meaningfully imperative — at a time when employers and employees need to be careful around that form. For all its glorious versatility, gambatte is fundamentally an order to try harder or to work harder. Depending on who is saying it, and how, the word can hop from coddling to cheerleading to cajoling to coercion.

It should not, of course, be banished. But it is helpful for Japan to be reminded that even the most cherished words can be used to abuse power.

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