The Gambari Spirit

Discussions of self-improvement in Japan often involve the verb gambaru. Its noun form gambari could be translated to mean ‘endurance’, ‘perseverance’, ‘effort’, or ‘tenacity’. 

Gambari indicates ‘exerting effort and hard work’ or ‘persevering and not giving up’. It is a key cultural value that guides Japanese motivation and the attitudes towards life’s challenges. I use the phrase ‘gambari spirit’ to refer to the Japanese tendency to approach challenges with a positive and focused mindset.


The gambari spirit is expressed and encouraged with the phrase gambatte. This is the imperative verb form, which literally translates to ‘stand firm’, but could also be understood as ‘do your best’, ‘stay strong’, or ‘hold out’. It is something parents say to their children on the day of an important exam, or that supporters of sports teams scream out at games to encourage players. 

I heard it often at the izakaya I worked at during my traineeship. While I prepared dishes at the kitchen counter, I would converse with customers, many of whom would ask me where I was from and how I liked Japan. They would almost always end the conversation by offering encouragement with the polite expression, gambatte kudasai:  ‘Please do your best’. Initially, I found this an unusual expression – one of many that I didn’t fully understand when I first moved to the country.

Gambatte Kudasai

I eventually learned that gambatte kudasai is a common phrase of encouragement but also a vote of confidence. Perhaps the customers who said this to me anticipated I would face many challenges living and working in Japan. They weren’t really expecting me to do my best, but they wanted me to stick at it and have a positive experience in Japan; they were wishing me well. I have a vivid memory of the first customer who said this to me – a young man, though older than I was, eating alone. He asked me many thoughtful questions, thanked me for the meal and said ‘gambatte kudasai’ as he departed. I now wish I could go back in time to thank him for his support.

Nana Korobi Ya Oki

The gambari spirit is captured by one of my favourite Japanese proverbs: nana korobi ya oki, which translates to ‘fall down seven times, stand up eight’.

It expresses the Japanese devotion to working earnestly and persisting – telling us that, to make progress in life, we will inevitably sometimes strive to go beyond what we are currently capable of, which means we may very well fail and need to dust ourselves off before trying again. If we fail again, we get back up again.

This approach highlights that failing at something is not necessarily a bad thing. It can force us to evaluate whether what we are doing or pursuing is of value. If it is, then nana korobi ya oki reminds us to persist even though we may be out of our comfort zone; this is how we can achieve things that we wouldn't have thought possible. More importantly, this is how we can grow: Failure allows us to learn humility, to discover ways of adapting, and to refine our technique.

Often people take setbacks too personally, equating failure at one task with being a failure as a person overall. This is not helpful or healthy. In fact, bouncing back from these setbacks can give us the feeling that we are self-actualizing, that our life is moving forward – a key contributor to ikigai-kan. 

Ignoring a challenge because of fear of failure

Most of us can probably identify at least one challenge in our lives that we are choosing to ignore because we are afraid of failure – but, if we embraced it, could lead to self-actualisation. For me, it was writing my book, Ikigai-kan: Feel a Life worth Living. I almost convinced myself not to, arguing that I wasn’t sufficiently qualified and that if I proceeded it would be a disaster.

While working on the project, I went through several bouts of intense anxiety and fear, which induced nightmares of school days when I hadn’t done my homework. And with incredibly poor judgement on my part, I invested in a book coach whom I later discovered cared little for the Japanese cultural aspects I wanted to bring to this book. Needless to say, things didn’t work out.

While this negatively impacted me in terms of both finances and productivity, I chose to take ownership of these problems, to get back up, and to persevere. As you can see, things eventually worked out – giving me the satisfaction of feeling personal growth, life momentum, and ikigai-kan – the ultimate reward for persevering with the gambari spirit.

Taking ownership

This does not just contribute to my life satisfaction now, but is also something that I can benefit from looking back on in the future. Taking ownership of setbacks or failures will provide you with more opportunities later in life to reflect on and make meaning from your memories – thus leading to ikigai-kan. By bouncing back from our setbacks we are building on our life legacy, giving us a future treasure trove of memories to explore and make meaning of in the future.