The Japanese language can be extremely convenient. There is no small talk, in most cases you don’t need to state the subject or object or sentences, and there are single words and expressions that can express a way of thinking or ideology that have no equivalent in English.
If there is one word that is used and repeated more than any other in Japanese it is “Gambarimasu”. A quick look at a dictionary would tell you the word translates to “good luck” or “do your best”. However, as you will soon discover with many Japanese words, this one has a more complex meaning and importance in Japanese social culture. “Gambaru” or gambaru-ism is the primary philosophy of the Japanese.
I first remember hearing the word when working at a restaurant. I was making salads and slicing raw fish at a counter bar. A male customer was quite surprised to see me working there. We had a conversation about why and what I was doing in Japan. At the end of our conversation when he was getting ready to leave he said “Gambatte kudasai”. I wasn’t sure what he meant and my co-workers were unable to explain to me the meaning of the expression. Later, I found out the expression meant “Please, do your best”. I found this a little odd – a customer telling a me, either as a foreigner or staff member to do my best. Then I began hearing the word more and more.
The term is used as encouragement, as a promise, as a dedication or a battle cry. When baseball players golfers, singers, sumo wrestlers, newly elected politicians and others are interviewed they invariably promise to gambaru. It is used and said almost in every situation imaginable. Well-wishers seeing friends and co-workers off abroad yell out “Gambatte”. Newly hired employees pledge that they will do their absolute best for their company by gambaru-ing. Control Freak parents expect nothing less than their children to gambaru in the their school work.
You hear it so often that you begin to understand that it is an important cultural expression, rather than someone expressing their intentions to be all they can be. Also, I have noticed parents often say it to their children as an expression of love ( my interpretation) , rather than an expectation of high performance. I saw parents say to their kids “Gambatte ne” on countless of occasions when they dropped them off to kindergarten. It had me confused for while, because it was kindergarten, children no older then 3 or 4 years old. I thought it was strange to be saying “Do your best” to children at such a tender age. The I realized it was just a parting greeting, much like when we say “Have fun” to our own children.
It takes years to learn Japanese and understand the language. Some words are so culturally ceremented that you need to experience several years of living in Japan to finally get them. It can be a very interesting learning process, but it is frustrating. So “Gambatte” and do your best.