Updated: Jan 24, 2022
One hot July day I was invited to give a TED Talk in Tokyo about my book “Japanamerica” and “Cool Japan,” the government’s campaign to capitalize on the international appeal of Japanese popular culture. But I didn't feel cool at all, and I didn't want to speak again about manga and anime, so instead I gave a talk about gaman: the virtue of enduring adversity with patience and dignity, and without whining.
Every July in Tokyo puts gaman to the test. Almost overnight, the sun reclaims its dominance in the sky, blasting over the city’s concrete sprawl with a vengeance. Tsuyu’s raindrop speckles on your brow turn to smears of sweat. Venturing outside of your air-conditioned cave is a trial. And after only a few 100-degree days, you know you're in trouble when sitting on your veranda at midnight feels nearly as stultifying as your lunch-hour stroll at high noon.
This July, Tokyo has the added trials of a fourth Covid-19 “state of emergency” extended until September, a belated and halting vaccine rollout, and tens of thousands of visiting athletes, coaches and media reps pitching tent in town for a month. Olympic-sized trials, indeed.
In the media, a lot has been made of residents protesting the staging of the Olympics mid-pandemic. But where I live, such protests have been thinly attended, and mostly by the usual suspects: older, ANPO-generation retirees bearing the signs and ritual chants of the habitually self-righteous, and younger student-age marchers taking a breather from Twitter rants—or snapping selfies to accompany and enliven those rants.
Compared to New York or London, two other cities I've lived in, the outrage looks pretty tame. There are even police escorts, dutifully obeyed, and not a single instance of the violent “kettling” crowd-control tactic, used by many urban police departments to divide-and-conquer civilians by cornering and assaulting them.
Instead, most Tokyoites seem resigned to grin and bear it, or grit their teeth and bear it, to gaman their way through the Games just as they do every July’s heat and humidity, its sudden typhoons, skittering cockroaches and chainsaw cicada buzz.
Only this year, while the Olympics are on, August has been canceled for the second summer running. Next month’s giddy matsuri festivals and eye-popping fireworks displays and homecoming pilgrimages to O-bon gatherings will all be missing, nixed once again to preserve social distancing and prevent virus infection. The days will pass hot and oppressive as always, but the sweet relief and release of dancing in the streets around bobbing mikoshi shrines and sweating through your creased yukata folds surrounded by friends and family as the skies boom and crackle with color and eating greasy treats from yatai food stalls while you drink yourself silly and sleepy in the thick summer air—none of that will come to pass.
And that makes gaman feel especially trying this July, worthy of real outrage, even protest. For whatever their outcomes, the Olympic Games will end. The athletes and camera crews will pack up, board flights, go home. But here in Tokyo, August feels over already. The normal of enduring a long hot Japanese summer surging together with your perspiring neighbors in time-honored bursts of celebratory joy is still such a long way away.