‘Ganbatte’ : to endure and persevere

How the Japanese survived in internment camps with one single word

 Japanese Americans boarding a train bound for one of ten American concentration camps.

One Japanese word might hold all the wisdom we need to survive during the most challenging times in our lives. This Japanese word was used as a survival mechanism to cope with the harsh conditions in the internment camps during WWII, where Japanese Canadian and American were relocated, when they were suddently considered enemies of the State.

During these challenging and unbearable moments for people who were citizens of their own country – but denied all their rights, put in camps guarded by men with loaded guns and barb wires – the word ‘Ganbatte’ became viral.

Interned Japanese Americans and Canadians shared this word that no guarded man could understand. It was the best and only weapon they could use against the enemy, a silent and pacific way to cope together – in a collective and sustainable way -, to the harsh inhuman conditions to which they were submitted.

In Japanese, the word or expression ‘ganbatte’, means  to ‘endure and persevere’. It’s a word – or expression – commonly used in Japan, when a life challenge arises and people feel the need to cheer other up or comfort each other. In fact, it’s also a way of saying : ‘if you have survived until now, it means you have something precious to offer to this world’. I have often felt this way. What about you?

We all endured unbearable life challenges at times, that we thought we could never survive. In those times, we usually kept repeating ourselves : ‘I can’t keep going, I don’t have the emotional and physical strength to survive this. This is too much for me.’

Some of us have endured years of emotional or physical pain and isolation, with no money to pay for any kind of support. It is exactly during those times, when we think we can’t keep going, that we must repeat to ourselves : ‘ganbatte’. We might have gone through this suffering to learn the notions of detachment and/or impermanence, and become the embodiment of compassion and love for all beings on the planet.

When we learn to ‘persevere and endure’ during our darkest times, we discover new gifts that were hidden inside of us, and a strength that we never thought existed within ourselves. We feel as if we are connected to everything around us in the Universe, understanding that we are all one, interconnected in a web or particles and light.

A God Given Angel

Sometimes, all we we need is a real-life angel or a sign that allows us to move forward in the right direction, or that helps us to turn the light back on. Many of us have met angels, even if we didn’t recognize them at first. And they might be the reason we are still alive.

The first angel I met was disguised as a 90 year old landlord, who owned the duplex I moved after the most difficult separation in my life and many other life challenges. A year before, I had lost a long time job and that first event was the beginning of my whole life falling apart. Everything material and everybody around was lost.

This angel on my journey was someone silently extraordinary, a real-life angel! He was a determined rebel, a black sheep, a free thinker! He was one of the last veterans of the World War II. At 90 years old, he was probably more in shape than most 60 year old men, his strength coming from within. And a light that nobody could have dimmed or turned off! He had suffered so much, saw so much pain, that he chose life and to see the good side of it, no matter what happened.

The Angel Untold Story

During the war, he had worked in the telecommunications Department for the Canadian Armed Forces, listening to the enemies conversations. He started to tell me all about it once ; we had became friends somehow. We recognized each other’s souls as two rebels, two black sheeps in their own family, two misfits, two angels.

Mr. Charlebois was much more extraverted than me. I had always been the introvert type, lacking self-confidence. When I met him, he turned on the magical light within me, that had been turned off since I was a kid. Angels bring magic into people’s hearts just because of who they are.

One time, after we went shopping, we stopped on our way back at a local coffee shop. I will never forget that moment. I felt somehow connected to him, as if he was my real father. When we sat down, he started to tell me about his work during World War II. I was speechless. As a telecommunications officer, he was listening all day to the enemies conversations to prevent future attacks.

It was my first and only direct contact with World War II ; ever! He was 90, had the shape and the mindset of a much younger man, but I knew he was most probably in his last years, if not the last one. I knew that his story had to be told, that he was someone extraordinary who had always been in the shadow ; he reminded me of myself. I made him a promise that we would meet again so that I could share his story with the world.

Showing me the path to my true self

Because he was truthful to his heart always, he became the first angel that lit the fire of the awakened person I am today. He was the first to show me how to transform myself from inside out, just by being. And this is what I want to do for others for the rest of my life, this is my life purpose.

Every time I called him to fix something in my apartment, he came up the stairs with a smile and his unique humour! His energy filled my apartment with positive vibes. That man was full of wisdom and nobody saw it. Whatever the challenge was, he always enjoyed it. It was just a matter of finding the right angle, the right way to look at something and persevere. He also understood the meaning of the word ‘ganbatte‘: to persevere and endure, as a veteran of a bloody war that has killed thousands of lives and left countries completely ravaged.

By looking at things from the right angle, by looking at what we can learn from this experience, by learning new life lessons that will guide us on our life journey, is also how we can ‘endure and persevere’.

What was extraordinary with him, was not that he was fast, agile, intelligent and curious. It was his resilience, his constructive way to look at everything life threw at him. And his resilience was in the small things and big things of life.

Humour is such a peculiar and personal thing, we either enjoy it or not. His wife was often irritated when he made jokes in public.

We went shopping once to replace my kitchen fan. As we were leaving, he started making jokes with the cashier. All his jokes came from his heart. He was true and authentic. That’s why I laughed every time at his jokes ; I recognized where it came from. He was a real angel. Not all people have the ability to recognize angels. And very few can recognize the gift of meeting an authentic person!

This angel who came my way was showing me what I had been trying to do all my life: how to be authentic and embrace myself, no matter how others felt or thought about me. That time at the hardware store, his wife looked at me with an irritated look and said : ‘he always speaks to strangers’. I don’t know what my exact response was to her, but I remember reassuring her that he was feeling good about it, and that it also made other people feel good.

By being what some people would consider his weird authentic self, he showed me who I should become : the real me. He often told me : ‘have a look at the cars in this parking. Do you see many cars that are the same exact colour, year and brand ? They are all different, just like us.’ He was full of wisdom in a simple and bold way. And this wisdom went unnoticed by his own tribe all his life. He was an older copy of me in a way!

He also told me often how getting mad was a loss of precious energy, as I was sharing with him the bad tempers of many of my family members, my mother in particular. He repeated often a French expression that would translate word by word to : ‘it takes more time for a cat to get down the curtains that it took it to go all the way up’. He was showing me that what I had experienced and seen from my parents was the wrong way to go for me.

Becoming my ‘ganbatte’

Angels always go unnoticed. The ones with the good hearts, the weird ones, the rebels without a cause. Mr Charlebois was one of those. He seemed like he was nobody special, but he never went unnoticed anywhere, because of his positive mindset and his light

During the hardest times of my life, he became the most important and only role model and teacher I had. He allowed me to endure and persevere during everything I went through after that. He was my ‘ganbatte’. I still think about him or talk to him when things get hard.

Because I lost everything during these two years, people started to point fingers at me, to see me as the problem. But these struggling years were precious. My world went upside down from one trauma to another, to remind me, that all changes start within.

Mr. Charlebois is the first one that opened my eyes, he was the first father I had : my spiritual father. He was always non judgemental and showed me how to cope with life challenges – the most important skill in life – and I realized it afterwards, when I started to awaken to my real self.

Without him, I don’t know wether I would have survived everything I went through or even became the better me, the real me, that was hidden under years of layers of obedience, by fear of rejection and conditional love.

He died last summer and I hadn’t seen him for months because of everything I was going through. During those challenging years, the thing I wished the most every day was to go and see him, but as every day was a battle for my own survival, it had to wait. The Universe had other plans for us. When I was finally able to see him, I learned through a neighbour that he was at the hospital.

After many days of communicating by email back and forth with his daughter, I saw him….one last time.

The day I was allowed to see him, he was alone when I entered his room. I had never talked to a dying person before. When I saw him, as an empath, I knew that a lot of his cells had already died and were dying continuously every second.

For that one last time with him, I hid my dog in a bag and brought it along with me. I needed his presence ; it was also a symbolic act. Charlie had always loved him, a reciprocated love by Mr Charlebois, and I knew telling him he was there with me, would make him feel happy, before leaving his physical body.

As I approached his bed, I felt insecure about how to be, how to act, what to do, how to talk. I had prepared myself in the bathroom, repeating my speech, but when I finally saw him, I felt like I was going to fall into pieces. As I started wabbling words to him, tears started falling down on my cheeks, my voice breaking, I kept talking to him : ‘Mr. Charlebois, I came here to thank you for being in my life, for making me smile and laugh every day during the worst times of my life. I also want to let you know that you will keep living through me. I am now the one talking to strangers all the times, making jokes with them, and just like you, I am now able to see the world through solutions rather than problems. You were the most important role model I ever had in my life, you were like the father I wish I had.’ He was looking my way ; it was hard to see his reaction because he was dying and could barely move, but I felt he received my words right through his heart.

I didn’t know if he could hear me, I was still holding his hand, even if it felt uncomfortable because he was dying and it scared me; but I kept holding his cold hand of what living cells he had left… I kept talking to him and looking at him sincerely with an open heart with cries in my voice :

‘Mr. Charlebois, you don’t have to worry about your wife, your family and your daughter will be alright. Do what feels good for you. If it means fighting, fight, but if it means letting go, listen to yourself. You have been physically died twice already.’ He stared at me. ‘That’s enough !’ I laughed and cried at the same time and added : ‘You are free. I love you Mr Charlebois.’

As I had just finished saying my last words to him, his face expression suddenly became constricted and he turned around in a fetal position, as if he was slowly preparing to get born again into something else, dying from this world but reborn in another one….the nurses said he was in pain after that, but what I felt is that for the first time in his life, I showed him it was alright to listen to his emotions and what felt right for him. And it probably opened a very tightly closed gate of pain within himself, bringing back years of suppressed painful memories before letting it all go. It sounded to me like a painful primal cry before his final breath. It was my way of being his angel, to set him free from all his pain and past sufferings. I was the one being his angel that time.

I didn’t think I would see him again, but I couldn’t bare seeing him all alone in his room in his last moments of life…I offered his daughter to go read for him. When I opened my email two days after, I felt in shock when I read the response, but I knew already that he would die soon after I had left. I had cried in the parking lot, feeling like falling apart into pieces, with nobody to share she depth of the pain I felt. There were no words. I felt an intense sadness, almost like despair. I was unable to talk or see anyone for hours.

The email his daughter sent me that day was brief and cold. She reminded me very much of my dad, a lawyer like her, in her distant and cold way of being with humans when emotions where involved : ‘My dad passed away’, she wrote. ‘The nurses went to see him after he had a very hard time breathing. There will be no funeral, according to his wishes.’ The absence of funeral, coming from a rebel, the black seep of the family, wasn’t a surprise. I loved him very much, I still do ; he was like a father to me.

A Silent Eternal Angel

Just like he had been my angel, I had been his, for a few minutes. He came in my life to show me how to become the better me, the real me, that was hidden deep within. He showed me how to endure and persevere during my awakening to my new self.

Thank you Mr. Charlebois. You were my first light. I will always remember and love you as a father and friend. I might talk to you whenever I need your fatherly guidance. You are welcomed to visit me whenever you want.

You showed me everything a daughter would have hoped for. And I owe you my life for that. I will keep my promise of honouring you by being authentic to who I always was, a soulful rebel writer. Thank you for bringing me back to life. I can now carry your light in the world.


This text is dedicated to Mr. Robert Charlebois, a curious soul, a rebel, a free spirit, a funny and witty spirit, an innovator, a telecommunications specialist during the World War II. An amazing soul father and angel. He died last year at the age of 91 years old. He is eternal. He will always be remembered.

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