The Virtue of Gaman

“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”   James 1:4


My wife was in extreme agony from labor pain as we anticipated the imminent arrival of our second child. Desperate for relief, we called the nurse for assistance and she simply replied “gaman dekinai?” The word gaman was new to us, but judging by the nurse’s response, we could tell she wasn’t going to do anything. Later, we learned that gaman (我慢) means “to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Sometimes it is translated as “perseverance” or “patience, but these words don’t do justice to the complexity of the concept in the Japanese context.

Gaman is considered a virtue in Japan, as it is an indicator of maturity and strength in the face of difficult circumstances. The objective is to bear hardship without complaint and thereby cause minimal inconvenience for those around you. This admired character attribute is evident when Japanese silently squash themselves into packed trains, work extremely long hours, endure brutal sports drills or sit in unheated classrooms. When one perseveres in a negative relationship at home, work or school, he is exercising gaman. When one waits patiently in a long checkout line or in a queue to board public transportation, she is demonstrating the power of gaman. Visitors to Japan may observe these responses in action and mistakenly assume Japanese lack assertiveness or initiative. In so doing, they fail to understand the value of gaman which undergirds all of Japanese society, enabling it to function in an orderly manner. This is why gaman is a common character trait among Japanese heroes who typically overcome huge obstacles while stoically enduring injustice and pain to ultimately triumph.

But gaman does have a dark side. It can impose unrealistic pressure on individuals to conform to expectations at the expense of their own physical or psychological health. It can squash self-expression and the free exchange of ideas that may facilitate corporate or personal growth. Japan’s orderly society comes with a cost and if the virtue of gaman is allowed to reign unchecked, other problems inevitably emerge.

Perseverance is extolled as a godly characteristic in the Scriptures and its practice is also a gateway to other virtues that should characterize God’s people. There is much to be admired in the similar concept of gaman, but we must be careful not to let it falsely shape the nobler attribute of perseverance. Their respective goals and the means for achieving them can be significantly different. Biblical perseverance has God at its center and the goal is to glorify Him through our faith-filled responses regardless of our circumstances. Although gaman promotes the worthy goal of maintaining an orderly community or company, it often comes at the expense of the individual and tends to neglect God altogether. The Bible character Job is perhaps the greatest example of perseverance (James 5:11) and how it eclipses the lesser virtue of gaman. Through his powerful testimony, we learn how Job endured the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity but his actions are not to be confused with gaman. While Job’s amazing perseverance did bless those around him and generations to follow, his ultimate goal was to worship God through his faith filled response. That is worth emulating.

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