Gaman, Satou! Workplace bullying in Happy Sugar Life

Though my actual review of Happy Sugar Life was manically glib and maybe a bit heavy on the meme (the yandere did n-o-t-h-i-n-g-w-r-o-n-g), much of my enjoyment of the show comes from it blowing up Japanese mores in the most over-the-top, absurd ways possible. Though it may be a bit premature to discuss themes, the first episode offers a perfect workplace revenge fantasy that cuts to the core of what I view as some of the more toxic aspects of Japanese language and work culture.

First, a story:

The fifth ranked employee at my workplace left on extended administrative leave months ago. Except for me (because of my odd status as a foreigner), he was the youngest and lowest ranking member in the office. Though no one told me the official reason for his departure, the rumor mill eventually churned up the ominous English loan-word “mental health.” From the conversation, I gather that he was probably depressed. And I think I know why.

The third rank employee, a middle aged man, would mercilessly yell at the fifth rank for perceived infractions. Afterwards, the fourth rank would always spit out some venomous, backhanded comment to complete the session and seal the fifth rank’s workplace isolation. According to the third rank, the fifth rank did not pull his weight in the office because he spent most of his time at the library overseeing an after-school program. When he left to work at the library, he was not available to participate in the office stamp carousel or lunge at phones the instant they rang to answer with the most energetic (genki!), self-effacing greetings possible.

To be clear, this is not a black company with infamous “death from overwork” karoshi conditions. I work for a small village government staffed by friendly neighbors that mostly live in the village itself. The work culture is good: break times are sacred, holiday leave is given freely, and my bosses are close and kind. For example, when the fifth rank asked for sick leave, he instead received long-term administrative leave from the compassionate directors who worried about his health. He will not lose his job and can return to work, eventually.

But despite the ideal small-town setting, the workplace bullying shocked me. The fifth rank seemed at least “adequate” at his job. After all, the first and second rank directors had nothing but friendly encouragement for him after his departure. This makes me think that the issue was personal: the third and fourth ranks just did not like the fifth rank. I suspect part of this has to do with the fifth rank’s weight. As the heaviest man in the office, he was victim to comments about his health and weight (by American standards, I would call him “big,” not fat…). Though I am sure much of this was well intentioned, with the third rank it often seemed to extend into fat-shaming stereotypes about lethargy and laziness (for example, complaining that he was too slow to return to the main office from his library work… across the street).

But here is the worst part: the directors never punished the third rank for bullying. No censure, no warning, not even a simple “be nice.” When the third rank yelled, the office was silent. Given their seniority, the directors then share some complicity in the bullying because they had the power to stop it but did not. Instead, they swept the problem away by sending the fifth rank home and seemed to hope that time would resolve the issue. Despite their apparent friendliness, the directors’ compassionate concern came across as a bit insincere for their inaction.

Happy Sugar Life blows up that polite facade in an intensely satisfying justice fantasy. Satou turns canned Japanese phrases like “gaman suru” into blunt weapons against society’s hypocritical, abusive seniors. In a precision yandere strike, the first episode especially eviscerates the idea of  “gaman.”

“Gaman” means something like patience, endurance, or tolerance in the face of adversity (a bit like the American concept of “grit” or the British “keep calm and carry on”). More romantically, people frame it as “enduring the unendurable,” as Emperor Hirohito famously said in his surrender address at the end of World War 2. In ideal cases, gaman is temporary. Japan would suffer the aftermath of the war, but by Hirohito’s death in 1989, the country had boomed to supplant the Soviet superpower as the world’s second largest economy. The endurance had paid off spectacularly.

For more mundane examples, look to this summer, the hottest on record in Japan:

“kyou atsui ne… sou ne… ja, gaman shiyou…”
“boy, it sure is hot today… yeah… welp, grin and bear it…”

But gaman becomes frustrating when it slips from stoic endurance of unsolvable problems to passive, willful resistance to solutions. On days so hot that an elementary schooler in Aichi Prefecture literally died, gaman encourages teachers and students to content themselves with desk fans and open windows while they doze off in class and smear sweat onto worksheets. When I asked why none of the classrooms had air conditioners, a teacher cheerily replied “gaman.” Even in the teacher’s room, energy-saving rules said that the air conditioners would not turn on until the temperature hit somewhere north of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, we could wait for the days to cool down in the fall, even if the thousands of people suffering from heatstroke across the country could not.

(Another summer story: when a student came into the teacher’s room complaining of a headache after hours running laps with the track team, the teacher on duty laid him down on the “cool” tile in the shoe room instead of letting him rest in the air-conditioned nurse’s office. I asked if he had heat exhaustion, to which the teacher insisted that it was simply a “fever” caused by a common “cold.” But surprise! fever is an occasional symptom of heat exhaustion! When I asked if he should move to a cool room, the teacher told me that the air conditioner would make the “cold” worse. Gaman away your heat exhaustion, in a room so hot and humid I sweat just standing there!)

Imagine then gaman in the context of a stressed employee experiencing workplace bullying. The Japanese cultural ideal encourages personal endurance. The bully isn’t the issue. Instead, your reaction is. Don’t get emotional, don’t complain, and most importantly, keep working hard (ganbatte! is another word I often have problems with). Gaman is a temporary state. But what happens when the problem has no end in sight and thus becomes, really, truly unendurable? In the fifth rank’s case, what happens when the bully will not go away because the directors will not punish him? You feel trapped. It is easy to imagine that stress building into depression and in extreme cases, suicide.

So often, gaman is spoken downwards. Seniors tell juniors to endure difficult deadlines and parents tell children to wait their turn. In these contexts, gaman can become a power word that sounds less like healthy encouragement and more like an authoritarian exhortation to  “shut up, settle down, and get back in line.” Sometimes, gaman is a command, not a choice.

In Happy Sugar Life, Satou turns this power dynamic upside down when she confronts her manager after weeks of workplace harassment. Initially, she speaks upwards when she tells her superior, “Why didn’t you control yourself? I controlled myself… you should have controlled yourself too” (here, “control” is gaman). With an eerily composed voice that only a disconnected yandere could affect (such excellent voice acting!), she remains perfectly polite but oh so precise in her attack.

As long as she held power over Satou, the manager did not fear being exposed for stealing pay or raping Taiyou. She could require her juniors to exercise gaman even if she herself did not display the same degree of self-control. Her little workplace “kingdom” of subservient bullies would protect her. But that power was imaginary. By simply choosing to ignore the social status of her superiors, Satou tore down the entire kingdom in an instant. Satou broke the rules and the manager broke down.

The manager had no real leverage: with Japan’s rock bottom unemployment rates and severe labor shortage, Satou could always find another part-time job. She did not need to wait out the bullying as gaman would require in the post-war system of life-time employment. She endured as long as she could and when her separation from her beloved Shio became unendurable, she stopped. She reclaimed her agency and asserted her human dignity in the workplace.

“Just pay me what I’m owed.” She was no longer speaking upward to a pathetic, hypocritical superior. She was speaking downward.

Mwah! Perfect. 👌👌👌 💯 It’s the workplace revenge fantasy that I did not know I wanted.

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