Westerners vaguely familiar with the Japanese term “ganbatte” sometimes think of the English translation as “good luck” or “hard work.” However, ganbatte is less about one’s luck and more about defining one’s own destiny. A more specific and appropriate translation of ganbatte is “do your best.”
Cultural background of ‘Ganbatte’ in Japan
Ganbatte is more than just a Japanese word; it is a core language component of the country’s culture and ethos. Ganbatte describes something rooted in the citizens of Japan from birth, a sentiment carried with them throughout their entire lives. It is a call to persevere whatever the challenge at hand may be, whether it is a simple daily task, an important job interview, a youth sporting competition, or something as serious as battling a life-threatening illness.
While there is an element of empathy in ganbatte, and a similarity to suggesting that someone “hang in there,” it is also a rallying cry in times of adversity. It is a charge to “give it your all.” And it is easy to see how some people could end up feeling patronized or even offended by the use of ganbatte. Expressing it to someone struggling with depression, for example, can be tricky. The depressed individual already feels unable to give it his all, and ganbatte might feel like the equivalent of twisting a knife in the open wound. Or the spouse whose husband has left her for the nanny might bristle at the mention of ganbatte, being told to persevere and “keep her chin up” when she feels her entire world has been shattered.
For the Japanese, however, ganbatte is indeed a way of life, no matter what kind of adversity one faces. It is related to the term gaman, from Zen Buddhism, which is ultimately about persevering with dignity no matter how difficult one’s circumstances may be. These are defining elements of Japanese culture, on display in myriad ways from their commitment and loyalty at work to the respect earned by those who persevere with humility and without complaint. To better understand ganbatte and its variations, we will walk you through some additional terminology.
How to Pronounce Ganbatte
First things first. If you read the introductory section of this article pronouncing the term “gan-bat,” then let’s clear up the confusion. The correct pronunciation is gahn-baht-te, which has been transliterated from kanji characters or Japanese script. Now that we have the correct pronunciation under our belts, we will move on to how it is used.
How to use Ganbatte
Depending on the person or situation, the Japanese use ganbatte in a number of different ways, each calling on the central theme of persevering and trying your best. But just as you might alter your statement to a runner at the start line versus what you might tell her at the finish line, there are a number of different variations here as well.
“Ganbatte kudasai” is a more formal or polite way to tell someone “do your best,” whereas ganbatte on its own would be considered the more casual way. The addition of “kudasai” turns the phrase into “do your best, please.” In either case, it is a call for the hearer to strive to reach their highest potential, to give their all, whatever endeavor lies before them.
The appropriate response to Ganbatte kudasai is “Hai, ganbarimasu!” and the appropriate response to ganbatte is “Un, ganburu!” Both of these are an acknowledgment to the other party that can be translated as “yes, I will do my best.”
Two important distinctions exist in terms of how you might use ganbatte with peers versus your superiors.
Ganbare is the imperative form of ganbatte, and it can still be translated as “do your best,” but in this instance, it is more of a command than a wish. You wouldn’t necessarily say “ganbare” to a superior at work, for example (whereas ganbatte is still suitable). Ganbare is more appropriate between peers or from a superior to someone ranked below her in a working environment, for example.
The collective rallying cry form of ganbatte is “ganbarou,” which translates to “let us all do our best.” Ganbarou is about a team meeting its challenges together; it is a commitment among all members to put forth their best effort.
While a task is underway, or even once it is finished, there are additional variations of ganbatte used in Japanese culture. “Ganbatte iru” is one example used when the task is underway, and especially if the struggle is difficult, to emphasize “I am doing my best.”
“Ganbaritai” can be used when the task is underway to express some form of doubt, “I am doing my best, but I may not be able to overcome these obstacles.”
“Ganbatte ita” would be used to describe doing one’s best in the past tense, as a way to reflect on a past struggle or difficult task and confirm that one did indeed try their best.
“Ganbarankatta” is an admission that “I was unable to do my best,” and it is a humble way of taking responsibility for one’s own failure, without casting blame on circumstances or other people.
Similarly, as a measure to console or encourage someone in the above scenario, you might tell them “ganbatta daro,” which can be translated into “you did the best you could.”
In a case where a task has been accomplished, regardless of the outcome, an individual may tell their friends and family “ganbatta,” which means “I did my best.” “Ganbarimashita” would be a more formal way of saying the same thing.
As mentioned earlier, there may be times when you are reluctant to use ganbatte or any of its variations, when you fear the recipient could feel insulted by the phrase. An alternative for this would be the Japanese translation of a popular American phrase: “keep your chin up.” If this seems more appropriate for the individual and circumstances, tell them “genki dashite” instead.