“Gaman” and the cardinal sin that is yawning in Japan

Posted on 19.09.2014


I’ve learned a lot about Japanese business etiquette these past few months, mostly what one SHOULDN’T do that may be considered rude. It goes SO MUCH FURTHER than just eating on the train.

Most of this has come from work, as I teach at a language school that services mostly business people.

The other day, a regular student of mine went to a ‘manners’ class (like an etiquette lesson) for work, and told me about it.

I’ve learned lately that many people perceive an open mouth to be a yawn, even if it’s not. I’m currently learning to keep my mouth shut and stop being a literal ‘mouth breather’. I’ve also learned that, even if I’ve been sitting on my ass for 6 hours straight with only a 5-minute break in between each lesson, I should not fidget, look tired, etc.

So my student was kind enough to explain to me a few things that are considered ‘bad manners’ in the Japanese workplace, and also WHY they’re considered rude.

The bottom line for most is that you can’t appear tired, or bored. I asked why, if the Japanese appear to treasure the phrase ‘workaholic’ as if it’s a good thing, yawning would be considered rude. Wouldn’t it stand to mean that you’re working really, really hard? That’s you’re super dedicated?


That just seems backwards to me: a person gets up at 5 or 6 to get to work by 8, work all day, possibly stay until 11pm or midnight because ‘my boss hasn’t left yet’, and most of those last few hours are spent ‘looking busy’. They can’t look tired, at all, in this situation?

I am a bit appalled by the work ethic here. I get excited when a student tells me they actually ‘like’ their job.

image from the Economist.com

image from the Economist.com

So then he explained a common term that is used in Japan, in all parts of life: Gaman. This phrase translates to mean: “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity“. He said that this is something that most people here strive for.

While I understand the phrase well enough (I’ve been doing Kobudo since 2001- I know all about ‘getting through it’), it seems like it sometimes might be taken too far, or in ways that are unhealthy. For instance: living and working on 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night is killing many of my students, but since it’s normalised and expected here, they do it anyway.

Saying ‘no’ isn’t really an option. Another student HAS to go out for drinks with his boss just about every evening. He has no choice. He doesn’t even like his boss, but he has to put up with him, as his boss has chosen him to drink with.

It goes right down to the info packets they give to women: if you get groped on the train, don’t make a scene about it. Just maybe elbow the guy in the ribs.

Yeah, that’ll teach him to not do it again.

The idea of ‘gaman’ in itself is a good one. But maybe it gets taken too far in some aspects of daily life?

Either way, I need to find a way to work for 10 hours and NOT open my mouth.