Sawa Kurotani has a good discussion of the the Japanese word "gambaru" in this week's installment of Behind the Paper Screen:
Gambaru is, for one thing, a process-oriented concept that emphasizes the moral significance of an effort, or doryoku. What is important is that one makes the sincerest effort possible, and the outcome of that effort is secondary at best, and, in many situations, completely irrelevant. In other words, in the value system of gambaru, the process of making an effort is intentionally dissociated from the outcome that the effort brings, so that the effort can be evaluated, and admired, on its own merit.
At its best, this ideal rewards hard work and encourages equity among those who are willing to work hard. There is an implicit acknowledgment that a successful outcome may depend on factors out of our individual control, such as natural talent, luck, or, in the increasingly commodified world of amateur sports, the availability of financial resources.
But one has control over how much effort one makes, and it is this choice to gambaru that makes a person good, worthy, and admirable.
Gambaru works as an equalizing mechanism, because, for one thing, it allows the not-so-talented to compete against the talented on a more equal footing. But somewhat ironically, it also curtails competitiveness, even in those aspects of social life--like business or competitive sports--in which competition is supposed to be the name of the game. When making an effort becomes the goal in itself, the bull-headed, often senseless exhibition of the spirit of gambaru can overtake concern for the quality or efficacy of the effort being made.
As long as you "made the utmost effort," you can satisfy others and yourself with that simple fact, regardless of outcomes. The overt emphasis on the effort also makes winning or getting a positive result an almost undesirable position to be in, as it exposes the fallacy of equity that the value of gambaru is meant to project. Therefore, if the appearance of gambaru is important when you lose, it is even more so when you win.
There is nothing more irritating than a person who doesn't make as much effort as others and still gets the result. The only way to escape the scorn of jealous peers is the acknowledgment that he or she outdid everyone with the most strenuous effort, leading, at times, to masochistic display of extreme effort, which may be symbolically significant, but in actuality, not so effective.
Gambaru became a central value in postwar Japan, because it was a perfect fit for the vision of byodo shakai (egalitarian society), where everyone can aspire to become "middle-class." Particularly between the 1950s and 1980s, it was easy to believe in such a dream and keep on doing one's very best, because, with the continuously growing national economy, almost everybody was doing better each year and was rewarded for their hard work.
By the middle of the 1980s, it looked as though Japan had realized the postwar ideal of economic and social equity, where over 90 percent of citizens considered themselves "middle class." In this equitably affluent society, one could be at least as good as the Joneses next door, as long as he or she continued to gambaru. This belief, in turn, supported the unprecedented growth of the Japanese national economy, by securing the hard-working and loyal workforce who unquestioningly devoted their lives to their companies, and by extension, to their nation.
The bubble economy of the late 1980s changed many things, and among them was the decline of the postwar ideal of byodo. People became increasingly dissatisfied with just being the "same" as everyone else, and began to search for ways to distinguish themselves from the masses. Many aspired to live a life that was wan ranku appu or "one rank above," and acquired a taste for luxury consumer goods and services, for which they seemed to spare no expense.
When the bubble economy collapsed, ordinary "middle-class" Japanese did not only lose the economic means for conspicuous consumption. After a brief taste of the life "one rank above," many found themselves on the losing side in a society of kakusa (difference or inequality), where competition is stiff and hard work may go unrewarded, and where the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to widen. Fifteen years later, it seems that many people have already lost faith in any kind of equity and allowed akirame (resignation) to permeate their outlook for the future.
This is a central concept for Japanese, because they have showed time and time again that anything worth doing is worth doing well-unlke the western "good enough" concept.