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What 'ganbaru' means and how to use it in Japanese

The word ganbaru and its imperatives ganbare/ganbatte are used frequently inJapanese society and are extremely culturally significant. With no single direct English equivalent, ganbaru can be translated in a variety of ways, like ‘to persevere through tough times’ and ‘put on a brave face and tough it out’.

Ganbare/ganbatte is often translated as ‘good luck’, ‘do your best’ or ‘break a leg’, but as will be discussed in this article, there’s more to it than that.

Two people saying ganbaru at work in Japan

What does ganbaru mean?

Japanese 頑張る
Hiragana がんばる
Romaji Ganbaru

The word ganbaru consists of two kanji characters (gan) and (ba). The first kanji means stubbornness or strength, and the second kanji means sticking or stretching. If we were to translate this directly into English, we could say the two characters together mean ‘to stick with something stubbornly’.

However, the correct translation for ganbaru is actually 'to be patient and do one's best'.

A woman knocking ‘em dead at her interview in Japanese

The expressions ganbare and  ganbatte are the most common ways to encourage someone in Japanese. Whether it be for a friend called for a job interview, or cheering your favourite sports team on, these words are often energetically cried out in a show of support.

Example:

Japanese 明日 - の - 面接 - 頑張って。
Hiragana あした - の - めんせつ - がんばって。
Romaji Ashita - no - mensetsu - ganbatte.
Translation Knock ‘em dead at your interview tomorrow.

Japanese 頑張れ。 諦めないで。
Hiragana がんばれ。あきらめないで。
Romaji Ganbare. Akiramenaide.
Translation Hang in there. Don't give up.

A man cheering his favourite sports team in Japanese

You may have learnt in the past that the imperative form includes verbs ending in re and that in most contexts you ought to be careful when you use it as you could come across as a bossy-boots. But you don’t need to worry about this when using ganbare, because in this instance the imperative form in fact strengthens and adds more clout to the intended meaning, and totally in a good way.

So in any given situation, like the two mentioned above, you’re safe to use ganbare. However, a different Japanese imperative variation …nasai when used with ganbaru to form ganbarinasai is generally only used by parents to their children, so it’s perhaps best to steer clear from this form of ganbaru if you can.

Example:

Japanese もっと - 頑張りなさい。
Hiragana もっと - がんばりなさい。
Romaji Motto - ganbarinasai.
Translation Try harder.

A Japanese football player doing his best

On a side note, when you’re bellowing out ganbare from the stands at your favourite sports team’s stadium, you may hear shouted by one of the surrounding fellow fans a word sounding bizarrely familiar to native English ears, faito. That’s because faito is in fact the English word fight which has been Japanified to suit more usual Japanese speaking patterns (see our article on wasei eigo which explains English words in Japanese in greater detail). So next time you see Gamba Osaka take on Cerezo Osaka, remember you can use faito as well as ganbare.

Example:

Japanese ガンバ大阪 - ファイト!
Hiragana がんばおおさか - ふぁいと!
Romaji Gamba Osaka  - Faito!
Translation Go for it, Gamba Osaka!
A Japanese boy gently encouraging someone

In contrast to the more emphatic sounding ganbare and faito, ganbatte is a gentler way of encouraging someone, sounding almost as if you’re requesting them to do their best. In situations which require you to be polite, don’t forget to add kudasai after ganbatte or you might accidentally come across as a little rude.

Example:

Japanese お仕事 - 頑張って - ください。
Hiragana おしごと - がんばって - ください。
Romaji Oshigoto - ganbatte - kudasai.
Translation Please do your best at work.

A Japanese woman trying her best because the deadline is right away

As we have covered in separate articles, the volitional form turns statements into suggestions, i.e from “we will sing” to “let’s sing”. So when expressing ganbaru in the volitional form, we are effectively saying “let’s try our best”. It is most commonly used when a collective effort is needed and the speaker is part of that effort.

For example, ahead of an important article whose deadline is so near it requires working through the night, a group of journalists might say to one another ganbarou, to support each other through this difficulty.

Example:

Japanese もう直ぐ - 締め切り - だから - みんな - 頑張ろう。
Hiragana もうすぐ - しめきり - だから - みんな - がんばろう。
Romaji Mousugu - shimekiri - dakara - minna - ganbarou.
Translation Let's try our best because the deadline is right away.

A Japanese boy trying his best on his homework

However, it can also be used by a speaker who is not partaking in the difficulty themselves, such as a mother to her child to convey that they ought to try their best in making it through the hardship of school homework.  

Example:

Japanese 宿題 - 頑張ろう - ね。
Hiragana しゅくだい - がんばろう - ね。
Romaji Shukudai - ganbarou - ne.
Translation Try your best on your homework.

A Japanese man saying that he will do his best with his interview

The last example given above, shukudai ganbarou ne”, contains a construct we have come across before in one of our previous articles. Recall that by adding ne to the end of a word, we're creating an air of uncertainty with the speaker which invites the listener to respond affirmatively.

So if you’re about to head off in a job interview and your best friend says “ganbatte ne” (“knock ‘em dead, okay?”), your immediate response should be either "un", “arigatou", “ganbaru” or all of them together to say “yes, thank you. I’ll do my best”.

Example:

Japanese うん、 - ありがとう。面接 - 頑張る - ね。
Hiragana うん、 - ありがとう。 めんせつ - がんばる - ね。
Romaji Un, - arigatou. Mensetsu - ganbaru - ne.
Translation Yes, thank you. I will do my best with my interview.

Also, recall that yo makes what you’re saying come across more forcefully, so just be aware of this when using it together with ganbatte as it might sound as if you’re insinuating that the listener hasn’t been trying hard enough!

Two table tennis players working hard to win the competition


On a final note on use cases, if someone wants to know how hard you’ve been working at something, you can say back to them anyone of ganbatte iru, ganbatte iru yo or ganbatte imasu, depending on the context.

Example:

Japanese 試合 - に - 勝つ - ため - に - 頑張って - います。
Hiragana しあい - に - かつ - ため - に - がんばって - います。
Romaji Shiai - ni - katsu - tame - ni - ganbatte - imasu.
Translation I am working hard to win the competition

 

It’s also important to remember that whilst in English it is possible to wish someone good luck even if they can influence the outcome, you should not use ganbare in this context.

Ganbare should only be used when the speaker has no control over the outcome.

Cultural background

Judo, kendo, sado and shodo

In Japan, the idea of finding value in the process of effort itself is important, regardless of the outcome. The ganbaru spirit is everywhere inJapan; at work or at school, or anything involving close collaboration. This type of mentality permeates many other aspects of Japanese culture, forming the backbone of arts such as judo (柔道), kendo (剣道), sado (茶道) and shodo (書道).

 

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January 8, 2021 1:50 PM