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Spend much time talking to people in Japan, and you’re sure to hear the phrases “gambaru” and “shou ga nai” over and over again. The fact that they both come up so often in conversation is kind of ironic actually, since their meaning are complete opposites.

Gambaru means “I’ll do my best,” and gets used for any topic that requires effort, including school, sports, work, and even finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. Shou ga nai, on the other hand, translates out as “it can’t be helped,” showing that you’ve already given up.

Unfortunately, a recent poll suggests that an increasing number of people in Japan are saying shou ga nai, with roughly a third of young adults saying they feel like their efforts in life won’t be rewarded.

The Institute of Statistical Mathematics recently released the results of its latest Survey of the Japanese National Character. The research group has been conducting the study every five years since 1953, and included in the latest iteration was a question asking respondents about their attitude regarding their life goals.

When asked to choose between the statements, “If I keep working diligently, I’m sure someday I’ll be able to achieve my goals” and “No matter how much effort I put into them, I think there are many things in which my efforts will not be rewarded in the slightest,” 37 percent of men in their 20s predicted the bleaker of the two outcomes. In its report, the Institute of Statistical Mathematics pointed out the marked jump; only 26 percent of men in the same age group had given that pessimistic answer in 1988.

▼ Males who responded “No matter how much effort I put into them, I think there are many things in which my efforts will not be rewarded in the slightest,” with age groups (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60, over 70) denoted at the bottom.

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The picture was rosier with women, with 22 percent in their 20s not expecting their hard work to amount to much, but even that represented a four percent increase over their 1988 responses.

▼ Responses from women

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So does all this point to an appalling lack of gumption among Japan’s current crop of young adults? Not necessarily. In 1988, Japan was at the tail end of its bubble economy. Those were heady days when export-centered companies were making money hand over fist and lifetime employment systems were still firmly in place. Coincidentally go-go dresses were at the peak of their popularity, and exposed female flesh always makes young guys feel more optimistic.

▼ The future looks boobs! Wait, I mean bright! Yup, the boobs sure do look bright!

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In the years since then, the country has seen its export and manufacturing sectors lose market share as costs and foreign competition increase, then experienced the growing pains of transitioning into industries that the Japan of today is better suited for. It’s also worth noting that Japan is just three years removed from the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region. On the purely economic front, the country is still recovering from the effects of a string of global financial crises, just experienced a tax hike, and is bracing itself for what looks like another.

So in looking at that big gap between 1988 and today, it’s important to remember that you’re comparing Japan’s biggest booms to the aftermath of some of the most sobering lessons natural and social science have ever dished out to the current generation.

▼ “Can we please just go back to go-go dresses?”

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Last, there’s one other thing to consider. Remember how respondents were asked to pick between “If I keep working diligently, I’m sure someday I’ll be able to achieve my goals” and “No matter how much effort I put into them, I think there are many things in which my efforts will not be rewarded in the slightest?” Those are both pretty extreme viewpoints, with a lot of grey area in the middle that the survey doesn’t provide any way of expressing.

The Institute of Statistical Mathematics solicited responses from 6,400 people, but only received 3,170 answers. Perhaps the thinking of some people who didn’t respond falls somewhere between the fairy tale and doom and gloom scenarios put forth by the organization. Maybe they think making their dreams come true is something that’s possible, but not guaranteed, and if you add in everyone with that rational way of thinking, the real percentage of young Japanese responding to life’s challenges with a sigh and a “shou ga nai” might be just a little lower than the survey’s numbers would initially lead you to believe.

Sources: Jin, Jiji, Institute of Statistical Mathematics
Top image: Tokyo Nosuto Clinic
Insert images: Institute of Statistical Mathematics (edited by RocketNews24), GMO, Pakutaso