Crisis, determination, forbearance: lessons from Japan

 From the Head of England House (Acting)


No matter what the adversity, if you live ‘doing your best’ the spring of life will come. We will not lose to this; there is nothing else for us to do but to persist in trying our best.

Junko Itou, tsunami survivor and friend (personal communication, 26 March 2011)

I lived in very close proximity to the tsunami-affected area of Japan for twelve months last year, so upon news of the earthquake and tsunami tragedies, I anxiously awaited any type of correspondence from friends in my Japanese community. Emails slowly began to filter through, and read alongside news reports and footage, it was clear that the response echoed across the nation to their devastating situation was the underlying ethos of ‘determination and perseverance’ and ‘strength and courage’. These idiomatic expressions are typical in Japanese culture but perhaps are not dissimilar to our own Australian cultural sentiments of mates helping mates – getting in there and having a go.

In recent months, we have seen many different communities rally together in the face of different adversities, for the benefit of everyone involved. The course of action we take after a shared tragedy reveals much about who we are, what we value, and what we believe in. During the Queensland floods, local communities worked together to support one another, and continuing acts of selflessness and mateship are helping in the onerous task of rebuilding what those affected once had. At a School level, during our most recent Assembly, Mr Dale and Mrs McConaghy spoke about the School’s own tragedy at Christmas Creek, and how the School’s response was to react in a consciously positive manner, by enhancing the outdoor learning base for students, which resulted in the highly-valued Marrapatta Memorial Outdoor Education Centre.

In the case of Japan, the people are responding with extraordinary stoicism, perseverance, and optimism. The calm reaction of the Japanese has been inspirational to countless onlookers around the globe. Whilst the media coverage has now subsided, we have all heard about people queuing politely to use a public phone; quietly waiting in lines two kilometres long to fill their cars with petrol; and waiting rugged up against the  cold outside grocery stores to graciously receive food and water rations. One wonders what fundamental tenet of Japanese culture informs this stoic and humble response.

One Japanese friend explained the phenomenon very succinctly by saying that in Buddhist belief, “it does not matter what caused the situation; it is the response which is important”. Everyone chooses how to react to a situation. It is this reaction which signifies one’s own attitudes, values and beliefs.

津波に流れされたのと、のみこまれて水の中意識無くなって…ミラクルがおきて…生きてたよ…今は大変な時期だと思うけど、残った人たちは みんなで協力して頑張るよ

I was washed away by the tsunami and lost consciousness from the water I swallowed… However a miracle happened; and I managed to survive. It’s a horrible time at the moment, but we who’ve survived will collaborate together, and will continue to do our best and never give up.

Jun Asano, tsunami survivor and close friend (personal communication, 17 March 2011).

夢なら覚めてほしいです。ただ、残った人達は頑張って生きています。オー ストラリアの洪水で(オーストラリア人)が頑張ったように、私たちも頑張ります。

… If it’s a dream, I want to wake up. But, for us who have survived, we will overcome these obstacles and continue on with our lives. Like the Australian flood victims, we will never give up and we will continue to do our best.

Wakako Haga, tsunami survivor and friend’s mother (personal communication, 13  March 2011).

The notions of ‘determination and perseverance’ and ‘strength and courage’ are deeply ingrained in the Japanese mindset, and both are heard almost daily, all across the nation. Ganbaru roughly translates as “to do your best, be strong, and never give up” (Dorell & Grossman, 2011), but the meaning is much more profound than this. Haghirian (2011) describes ganbaru as a concept of actively trying to finish a task and never stopping until it is achieved. The goal might be difficult or even painful, but because it is considered weak to give up, to try as hard as one can, to be strong like a samurai warrior, is a philosophy instilled in almost everyone, from a very young age.

The second expression is gaman. Broadly translated, gaman signifies “calm forbearance, perseverance, and poise in the face of events beyond one’s control” (MacIntyre, 2011).  This silent perseverance, with no outward complaining, is considered an admirable quality. Of course, given recent events, below each person’s exterior calm it can be assumed that there is a deep layer of numbness and sadness; but to outwardly express one’s emotions is subjugated to considering how one should act for the good of the larger group.

Setting aside the difficulties of translation into English, are gaman and ganbaru valued in our own society? And if they are, how can we instil a strong foundation of core values in our students to enable such a response?

Through the Ethics Programme, girls are given the opportunity to “learn responsibility, develop resilience, take risks, and understand the value of supportive relationships” (Brisbane Girls Grammar School, 2008). Different year levels focus on different areas of social, emotional and intellectual growth with themes emphasising a range of issues pertinent to teenagers at various stages of development.  By teaching students the importance of assisting others, the value of making considered decisions and taking responsibility for one’s actions (Brisbane Girls Grammar School, 2008), alongside the notion of always trying to do one’s best (Martin, 2010) the tenet of ganbaru is being emulated in our own cultural terms.

The Japanese secondary education system also includes an ethics/ values programme, but the philosophies of gaman and ganbaru are so deeply ingrained in family life that children develop the sense of understanding and the cultural responsibility associated with these expressions long before they reach high school age. The relative responsibilities of schools and parents in inculcating these values vary between the Japanese and Australian contexts, but it is clear that both groups play crucial parts in raising young citizens who can play a role in the ‘larger group’.

On a practical level, there are several precepts which can help instil in the girls the ethos of gaman and ganbaru:

  • Be courageous. Take risks, and embrace academic challenge. By managing failure, resilience is developed, and overall performance can be improved.
  • Persevere. Be prepared to struggle, but be reassured determination and perseverance are rewarded.
  • Remain calm and composed.  Remember, it is the behavioural response to a situation which is important. When marks are received which you’re not happy with, use the situation to improve for next time.
  • Be thoughtful. Think about your response, as this reflects who you are and what you value.
  • Do your best. Persist in striving to perform to your highest ability and never give up.
  • Be tolerant of others. Everyone is on their own life journey, trying to do their own best.

There is no single English equivalent for gaman or ganbaru, yet it is evident that our culture too values the behaviour they give rise to. We simply use different words to express the same ideals. We should foster these admirable qualities by promoting strength and courage, perseverance with determination.  In doing so, we can be confident that our students will be able to face the challenges and adversity which may lie ahead for them in the future.

Crisis and tragedy, often overwhelming, are constants of the human experience, and will likely touch every one of us to some degree in our lives. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami were magnified by the immediate context of massive natural disasters in other parts of the world, including New Zealand and right here in Queensland.  Nevertheless, what all these tragic circumstances had in common were the heroic and empathetic responses which – although varied in tone and expression in each culture – were evocations of the same human spirit of community and practical compassion to do to others what we would hope for ourselves.

Mrs E Lowry

Brisbane Girls Grammar School (2008). Holistic Development. Retrieved 10 May 2011 from

Dorell, O., Grossman, C. (2011, March 17). U.S. donations not rushing to Japan. USA Today. Retrieved 20 April 2011 from

Haghirian, P. (2011, February 15). Mastering the Basics. Succeeding as a foreign manager in a Japanese firm. ACCJ Journal. Retrieved 20 April 2011 from

MacIntyre, B. (2011, March 16). Crushed, but true to law of `gaman’. The People – Japan Disaster. The Australian, p5

Martin, A.J. (2010) Building classroom success. London: Continuum.

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