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Gaman -- To Bear the Unbearable

As those of us in the United States watch the devastation in Japan as a result of the 9.0 earthquake, the tsunami it unleashed, and the threat of the failure of multiple nuclear reactors, many of us are probably amazed by how calm and collected the Japanese have remained, even the victims. They seem to be able to bear the unbearable.

My mother was born and raised in Japan. I am hapa (half Japanese and half Caucasian). As I result, I sort of understand some Japanese concepts, but usually not quite correctly. Please let me try to explain my understanding of the concept of "gaman."

Gaman means to bear whatever happens without complaint. It is not good to draw attention to yourself by complaining. That would make you look bad. However, to bear the unbearable is a sign of real character and will be respected. We are supposed to endure physical injury without showing pain. We are supposed to bear natural disasters and immediately get on with the recovery and rebuilding. Complaining will not accomplish anything. If tears are to be shed, let them be shed while we are working on resolving the problem.

With respect to the earthquake and tsunami, these are natural disasters. Who is to blame? No person caused them. The same nature that makes the plants grow also made the earthquake and the tsunami. You cannot curse nature.

Japanese almost have a sense of resignation or inevitability -- natural disasters are bound to happen. You cannot do anything about them, except to prepare to the best of your ability. It does seem that Japan was ready for the earthquake but that no one could be prepared for such a severe tsunami. No one could do anything about the tsunami, so you just have to bear it, even if it is unbearable.

I am not saying that Japanese do not grieve and shed tears. Certainly they do, but mostly in private. If you see victims standing in the midst of indescribable destruction, they will usually appear to be calm. However, when you see them receiving aid, then they might cry. It is almost as if they are sad that they needed help -- as if they could bear the unbearable, but not the fact that they needed help.

I am certain that I have not explained this correctly -- perhaps 1/2. But I have done so for a reason. We should not let the calm and controlled looks on the faces of the victims in Japan lead us to believe that they do not need help. They do. And it does not mean that they do not appreciate help. They do. They just do not want to ask for help, not because they are arrogant or too proud -- but because they have been raised to bear the unbearable without complaint.

The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters. The nuclear power plant problems, although caused by the earthquake and tsunami, are man made. I do not think that gaman applies to that disaster quite the same.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the victims and people suffering in Japan. Especially here in Hawaii, we realize that but for the grace of God that could have been us. Given our proximity to the ocean, a similar tsunami would have wiped out most of Oahu and the other populated areas of Hawaii's islands.


Charles C. Goodin