Japanese word 我慢 (gaman): putting up with it

By | February 8, 2019

The Japanese word “gaman”, often written in kanji as 我慢 (or sometimes in hiragana as がまん)、is one of those words that seems conceptually simple, but doesn’t always have an easy English equivalent.

“Gaman” is fundamentally about suppressing or putting up with some emotion or desire. Similarly, it can also have a nuance of enduring of preserving.

Frequently this word is used together with する (or a form of it) as a verb (ex: 我慢する). Let’s look at a very simple example:

  • もう我慢できない (mou gaman dekinai)
  • I can’t take it anymore.

Going from our definition above we could initially think of this phrase as meaning “I can’t put up with it anymore” or “I can’t suppress it anymore”, but neither of those sounds too natural, whereas “I can’t take it anymore” fits the meaning perfectly and sounds natural. Since there is no object to the verb, the English word “it” is appropriate to main this indefinite feeling.

By the way, the phrase “我慢ならない” (gaman naranai) means almost the same thing as (我慢できない), however the former doesn’t sound like something a young person would say. This page talks about the differences between the two words, but one person refers to “gaman naranai” as sounding like “a stubborn old man”.

Here’s an example that seems simple but is surprisingly hard to translate:

  • 我慢するな! (gaman suru na)

Literally this means something like “don’t endure it!” or “don’t suppress your feelings!”, but such phrases sound quite unnatural.

I think a proper translation would depend on the context, but here are two natural phrases that might work.

  • Don’t force yourself!
  • Don’t keep it all inside!

As you might expect, you should generally use the を (wo) particle for the object of 我慢 when used as a verb. For example:

  • 痛みを我慢するのはつらいです。 (itami wo gaman suru no wa tsurai desu)
  • It is tough to bear (the) pain.

Whereas the above example used a simple noun as the object of the verb, you can also use の (no) as a nominalizer to convert a verb phrase into a noun.

  • 食べるのを我慢しなければいけない。 (taberu no wo gaman shinakereba ikenai)

This phrase can be a little tricky to translate (and perhaps even understand) because thinking in terms of “enduring eating” or “suppressing eating” doesn’t really make sense. But if you think in the sense of “refraining from” things fall into place:

  • (I) have to refrain from eating.

我慢 is often used together with the word 強い (tsuyoi, meaning “strong” or “powerful) to make the compound 我慢強い (gaman zuyoi). This is an i-adjective that means someone who can “strongly persevere”, or, more naturally, “persistent”.

  • 彼は我慢強い人じゃないよ。 (kare wa gaman zuyoi hito ja nai yo)
  • He is not a persistent person.

As with all i-adjectives, you can change this phrase into an adverb by using the “ku” form (gaman zuyoku). This is a close match to the English “persistently”.

  • 我慢強く待ったほうがいい。 (gaman zuyoku matta hou ga ii)
  • It’s better to wait patiently.

It’s interesting to note that in Buddhism, 我慢 is actually one of the 7 earthly desires; in that context it means something like “conceit”, “pride” or “arrogance”. If you think about the meanings of the two kanji characters composing 我慢 (我 = self, 慢 = pride/arrogance), this makes perfect sense. Another word that means this is 慢心 (manshin). However, in modern, everyday Japanese, “gaman” typically means what I discussed earlier (suppressing a desire, enduring something, etc.) This latter meaning can be expressed less ambiguously with the word 忍耐 (nintai).

Another commonly used verb that means almost the same as 我慢する––at least in the “persevere / endure” sense––is たえる (taeru). This can be written in kanji as 耐える or 堪える, but not 絶える (which means “to cease”, “to stop”, etc.)

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