The word ganbaru is ubiquitous in Japanese culture. Roughly translated, it means “persistence”, “tenacity” or “hard work”. When junior high students cram for high school entrance exams, their parents remind them, “Ganbatte!” When a 1995 earthquake killed 6,500 people and irreparably damaged more than 400,000 buildings in Kobe, the government urged people on: “Ganbaro!”
In the past few years, publishers have released enough books based on this theme that they make up a new genre: “ganbaru literature”. Persistence takes center stage as characters “do their best” at difficult professions—usually unorthodox ones. Authors carefully lay out the details of obscure or minute crafts as characters fully commit to working hard at them. The number available in translation speaks to their appeal to English-speaking readers looking for stories of hardworking people with unfamiliar careers. The hero of The Forest of Wool and Steel by Miyashita Natsu (translated by Philip Gabriel) wants to become a master piano tuner. Naoki Matayoshi’s Spark is about a young man struggling to make it as a manzai comedian. (Translated by Alison Watts, Spark was also made into a hit Netflix series.) Shion Miura’s The Great Passage (translated by Winters Carpenter) is about an entire generation of people writing a comprehensive Japanese dictionary.
The Easy Life in Kamusari, also by Shion Miura, is about a diligent worker in Japan’s forestry industry. Yuki Hirano has just graduated high school. His grades weren’t great, so he plans to become a “freeter”—a worker in Japan who won’t make it into a career with lifetime employment. His mother has other ideas and signs him up for a forestry apprenticeship in far-away Kamusari.
From a narrative perspective, the rest of Yuki’s story is fairly predictable. For weeks after he arrives in Kamusari, he wants to escape. The city-slicker protagonist has often-comic run-ins with his country neighbors. Spring comes and he falls in love. During the heat of summer, he begins to commit himself to his work. In autumn, traditional festivals teach him the value of ritual and superstition in his rural community. As the snow again begins to fall, he finally achieves a sense of belonging.
For readers, especially non-Japanese ones, the introduction of a new professional world is part of the appeal of any work of ganbaru literature; The Easy Life in Kamusari’s charm lies in Miura’s careful, well-researched picture of life as a Japanese forestry worker. (Several pages of acknowledgements and references at the end of the book testify to how thoroughly she researched her subject.) In one scene, Yuki narrates learning to prune giant cypress trees to help prevent forest fires:
The cypresses on West Mountain were nearly forty feet high. We were there to prune branches around twenty-five feet off the ground and about two and three-quarters inches in diameter where they joined the tree. We loped them off, one after another.
You don’t just do it blindly. As you may know, branches swell a bit where they connect to the tree. If you cut into the swelling you’d injure the trunk and lower its value as timber. You have to leave the swelling in tack and cut at just the right angle, taking into account the shape of the branch and the trunk.
Miura’s descriptions of Kamusari’s forests, beautifully translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, are equally evocative:
Tiny violets grew all along the paths by the paddy. In gardens everywhere, and even in the green foothills, countless magnolias bloomed like white flames. The sheer energy of spring was intense. It was as if a screen in dim monochrome had suddenly burst into living color. No special effects technology could possibly convey the brilliance of the change.
Nevertheless, the charm of the novel cannot disguise the problems with ganbaru culture that underlie the story. The notion that anyone can overcome adversity by will-power alone is problematic; many circumstances are outside of people’s control, no matter how hard they work.
Yuki’s mother signs him up for the forestry program without giving him a choice. His coworkers take his cell phone away and force him to do dangerous work for which he isn’t really qualified. There is even a brief chase scene when Yuki tries to escape on the back of someone else’s motorcycle only to be recaptured. No one notes that Yuki was compelled to come to Kamusari and stay there without his consent. A cynical reader could conclude Yuki’s career begins with a stint of forced labor—his decision to do his best is made for him.
Superficially, The Easy Life in Kamusari is a wholesome, untaxing novel about a hard-working young man in an unusual profession. But the ganbaru attitude is a lurking danger Japan has yet to face.