Ganbaru 頑張る [pronounced “gahn-bah-roo”] is to practice steadfast determination at accomplishing the task at hand. It is a towering level of determination that is legendary in its unbreakable focus to achieve a goal.
Determination is clearly a core value and principle in karatedō. Ganbaru sits somewhere between nen (focus) [read more about nen here] and nintai (indomitable persistence) [read more about nintai here].
Just like it would be impossible to execute every single technique in a class with a ki-ah (you'd be exhausted after barely 1/3 of the class), you also cannot live your life at the highest level of focus and determination that nintai describes.
On the other hand, nen is the general, every-day, strong focus that a karateka seeks to practice. Nen is a constant refrain in the song of the karateka's day – it is omnipresent.
Ganbaru certainly encompasses nen, but not reach the lofty heights of nintai. As such, ganbaru can be the steadfast determination brought to all the important projects and tasks in the life of the karateka.
Ganbaru as the Slow-burn Nintai
History is replete with examples of ganbaru. Some of those examples are so fantastic that many doubt they are true.
But they are.
For instance, for 29 years, 3 months, and 16 days from the surrender of the Imperial Japanese forces at the end of World War II, there was a constant stream of reports of Japanese soldiers who literally kept fighting in the various jungles and forests of Asia, determined to continue following orders to bring the conflict to their enemy, without fail.
Even as late as the middle of the 1970s, soldiers were being discovered and told that the war had ended decades ago. And in most cases, they took quite a bit of convincing that this was indeed the case, and that they should lay down their weapons and cease committing acts of sabotage.
Each of these soldiers fought with ganbaru — steadfast determination to continue the conflict, no matter having lost contact with their command structures and given no supplies, weapons, or any other support from their respective military units.
This was determination played out over decades – it would be impossible to practice nintai for that length of time. But ganbaru can be part of the fabric of every day of every month of every year in your life.
Ganbaru came into wide conceptual use in the Edo Period in Japan, during the 1700s. It’s original colloquial interpretation was to “stretch the eye” or “widen the eyesight” to encompass as much as possible. Or in other words, to expand one’s consciousness to cover every possible aspect of a problem, to discover every possible solution to accomplishing the task at hand.
This evolved over time to an expression of unreal focus — of having superhuman focus on achieving a solution to a problem, and then later, to having a superhuman determination to accomplishing a task.
Ganbaru is as much an exhortation to someone else as it is a quantity or quality of something — it’s as much an encouragement as it is a concept by itself. Ganbaru can be as much a command, or a battle-cry, as it is a philosophical concept.
(In fact, it is used widely even in modern Japan, among all martial arts, and the concept is in common use by the population. After the 1995 devastating earthquake in Kobe, billboards exhorting “Ganbaru Kobe!” appeared throughout Japan as the rebuilding effort began, and again in 2011, after the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami, posters and billboards sporting the phrase appeared nationwide.)
The Demon’s Admonition
In the seminal book, The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, an Edo-period work on the philosophy of martial arts, the main character (the Tengu, or “Demon”) observes that it is the nature of the warrior to embody the concept of ganberu. In the main Sermon itself, the Tengu observes that “man is a being that must move…. Either he moves towards goodness, or he moves towards that which is not goodness. That is the Way.”
One must understand that in the book, the Tengu doesn’t allow the possibility of any Third Way. There is no such thing as “standing still”, or reaching “equilibrium” or “working hard to achieve the objective.”
Unlike concepts like nintai (indomitable persistence) or tohkon (fighting spirit) or even kokoro (strong spirit), ganbaru doesn’t give much thought to the how hard the struggle is, or what is required to achieve success, or even if success is possible.
As Tengu counsels the lone warrior in the dark forest, ganbaru simple states that one accomplishes the task at hand. There is no other possibility and it is pointless to contemplate anything else.
The Lesson for Life
So what does this teach us, in our daily lives, in our martial art, and in our modern world?
Ganbaru teaches us wisdom that is sorely missing from many aspects of our modern life. It exhorts us to strip away the facade of fakery, of equivocation, of doubt.
Ganbaru teaches us that the hedging we so often do (“I’ll try my best!” —“I did the best I could with what I had!” — “I did better than most people in my position!” “I got 90% of the job done!”) is meaningless blather. This kind of equivocation would get the warrior in The Demon’s Sermon eaten by the Tengu in disgust!
And ganbaru reminds us that accomplishments worth accomplishing have to be hard. And that they are often covered in nettles and traps and things meant to deceive our perception and sap our will, and to make us freeze in indecision. And again, all our hesitation at going forward, all of our reluctance to work hard and to persevere, all our self-doubt is counter to the spirit of ganbaru.
Burn The Ships
About 1,500 years before the Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts was written, half a world away on the shores of Britain, a young Julius Caesar landed on a foreign island peopled with mysterious savages and unknown dangers.
He commanded a small invasion force of five Roman legions that had fought its way through most of Western Europe and was understandable bedraggled and somewhat apprehensive at engaging an enemy that none of them knew anything about.
But Caesar understood ganbaru. Perhaps the Tengu from the Demon’s Sermon had appeared to him one night in his tent. Unlikely, but one never knows.
The morning following their landing of the Roman forces on the shores of Britain, Caesar assembled his legion on the beach, and instead of having them face up the beach, as normal, to prepare to advance into Britain, he ordered them to turn around and face the water.
All along the beach, they could see the Roman fleet of ships that had brought them across the English Channel, bobbing in the water. Keep in mind that technically this was the second landing of Roman forces on the shores of Britain – the previous year, a much smaller force of two legions had mounted a landing that was minimally successful and resulted in a full withdrawal of Roman forces.
To make this expedition more successful, the Romans had spent the winter building a fleet of ships in Gaul, preparing for the invasion. It was this fleet, that the Romans had spent the Winter building and provisioning, and which now was anchored along the beach, and which all the soldiers viewed before them.
Caesar looked at his brave legion, and then turned to his trusted commanders, and gave a simple order: “Burn the Ships.”
He might as well have shouted “Ganbaru!”
As all of the ships burned, and horror washed over the several thousand Roman soldiers on the beach that day. Not only had they spent all Winter building them, but those ships were their only way to get back across the English Channel and home.
But then, it slowly dawned on them: there was only one way home. Finish the mission, conquer this new land no matter what, and then build new ships to go home.
There was no Plan B. Succeed or die here.
The Tengu would have approved.
(And for the record, they succeeded. Ganbaru works.)
|Stubborn, Non-quitting; inhuman steadfastness (combines with 張る to form Ganbaru)
|to stretch (haru) to expand to encompass the entire problem, to accommodate all possibilities.
Classification Note: As a concept in karatedo, Ganbaru 頑張る is classified as basic (or atomic) and is literal in meaning and scope. It is a fundamental concept in all martial arts, without exception.
Editor's Note: Ganbaru 頑張る was chosen as the Kagami Biraki message for 2022, and presented in a lecture on January 15, 2022 at the Goju Karate dojo in New York City and via Livestream. This lecture was again delivered by Sensei at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 15 March 2023.