By Desiree Wee
The Japanese Perspective on Self-Preservation and Self-Sacrifice
“Gaman” refers to a sacred Japanese virtue with Zen Buddhist origins which means “to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience”, a trait traditionally reinforced amongst the Japanese people since youth. The virtue of “gaman” is often famously reflected in Japanese manga and anime clichés where the protagonist exhibits a god-like resilience and self-preservation when faced with the prospect of death or utter destruction which leads to a brutal struggle between the villain followed by a heroic triumph over evil.
On the surface, Reki Kawahara’s highly popular Japanese science fantasy anime series Sword Art Online (2012)appears to embrace the virtue of “gaman” where the characters, faced with the prospect of being trapped in a virtual game eternally, persist in order to find a way to escape despite the odds against them. Sword Art Online centres around a group of players of the titular fully immersive virtual reality massively multiplayer online role-playing game (VRMMORPG) who find themselves unable to log out until they defeat a slew of monsters and beat the final boss at the 100th level. If they are killed in-game, they die in real life as the NerveGear helmet, the console which allows players to access the game and replicates human senses in-game, is programmed to kill the player when their health bar is drained through intense microwave emissions. Despite the initial chaos and panic, these players are ultimately able to unite with the common struggle of survival and freedom to collectively commit themselves to completing the game together, exhibiting extraordinary willpower to stay alive.
However upon closer inspection of the film, an underlying theme of self-sacrifice also exists in Sword Art Online. Some characters give their lives away to protect others or for a greater cause instead of committing to “gaman”, ensuring their own destruction instead of preserving their own existence. Sacrifice, also known as “gisei”, is another sacrosanct virtue to the Japanese; dedicating completely or even taking one’s life is one of the most honourable acts that one could perform yet self-sacrifice requires that one focuses on giving up one’s life instead of fighting to protect themselves. Sword Art Online evinces the sacrifice of oneself where players risk their lives to save others. The values of self-preservation and sacrifice can be perceived to be contradictory within Sword Art Online and the larger Japanese culture yet both virtues are equally valued in the eyes of the Japanese.
I would thus contend that Sword Art Online illustrates the struggle between the Japanese virtues of self-preservation and self-sacrifice and how these seemingly contrasting qualities set out to accomplish the same goal: the greater good. However subtle, there exists a conflict between the spirit of “gaman” by players who insist that everyone should stay alive and move on and yet are willing to give up their own lives in order to protect others and progress through the game in order to free all the players trapped in the game. Despite their fundamentally different and sometimes contradicting values, it is undeniable that both values reinforce the importance of the collective society above the individual; to endure what seems intolerable to maintain societal stability and persist in fighting for the betterment of everyone else and to devote one’s life wholly in the interest of others. This article would thus seek to explore in greater depth the clash between the qualities of self-preservation and self-sacrifice in Sword Art Online, the meaning of “self” and finally reconciling “gaman” and “gisei”.
“Gaman” and “Gisei” in Sword Art Online
Through the course of Sword Art Online, an elite group of frontline fighters, known as the “Clearers”, represent the spirit of “gaman” and work and fight tirelessly to clear the game and save the players from being forever imprisoned. They recognise that their efforts are needed to ensure that the more vulnerable players are protected against the monsters that roam the world and for everyone to have a chance to return to the real world, taking their responsibilities in their stride. Self-sacrifice is also reflected by the willingness of the clearers to give the up entirely in order to save others or to achieve something bigger than themselves, showing no hesitation in committing to the ultimate sacrifice to to ensure the safety of others and the survival of the collective.
“I’d Rather Die With Someone Than Let That Person Die Before My Eyes.”Kirito
The conflict between the Japanese values of self-preservation and self-sacrifice is exhibited in Sword Art Online through the hypocrisies in the player’s attitudes towards survival and sacrifice of one’s life for others. Throughout the animated series, the players often plead with their friends and loved ones not to put themselves in danger by fighting the in-game monsters despite their own willingness to risk or give up their own lives for the sake of others, exposing the conflict between the two virtues. This is an interesting observation as we would expect that those who are willing to sacrifice themselves would be able to accept that others would be prepared to do so in the same scenario. Yet the series shows that the players want to protect others above all cost without regard as to whether they themselves can preserve their own lives in the process. This was shown during Kirito’s final battle with Kayaba Akihiko, creator of the game and final boss, in the episode “The End of the World” where Asuna, Kirito’s lover, makes him promise that he would win the fight and return safely only to sacrifice herself by blocking Kayaba’s final blow with her body.
Jibun – The Japanese Sense of Self
In order to reconcile the conflict between the Japanese values of ‘gaman’ and ‘gisei’, I first have to examine the concept of ‘self’ in the Japanese context. The Japanese word for ‘self’ is commonly referred to as ‘jibun’ which not only refers to oneself but to others as well. In the book Japanese Sense of Self, Nancy Rosenberger states that “(Jibun) implies that self is not essentially apart from the social realm. Jibun literally means ‘self-part’ – a part of a larger whole that consists of groups and relationships and is almost always used in reference to that larger whole”. This is not surprising due to the culturally collectivist nature of Japanese society which place importance of the survival and prosperity of society over the individual needs and desires; where one measures their value not by what he can do for himself but how he can contribute to others.
In this case, since self refers to a larger social group that one belongs to rather than just oneself, the preservation of “jibun” arguably includes the preservation of not only oneself but one’s family, friends and community. The sacrifice of oneself may mean that one’s life has been extinguished but one’s self continues to live on through others or through what he or she believes in to be “the greater good”; It was revealed after the completion of the game in the episode “The World Seed” that mastermind Kayaba Akihiko had succeeded in uploading his consciousness online using the NerveGear to perform a high-intensity brain scan, killing himself in the process. Yet this allowed him to not only preserve himself in the online world but also through his creation ‘The World Seed’, a master server which enabled other developers to create their own virtual reality worlds, materialising his dream of creating worlds where reality was the result of one’s imagination even after his own death. Kayaba sacrifices his life to fulfil his ambitions yet he is remembered for his contributions by the gaming community and lives on through his accomplishment of being able to realise his imagined world.
A Different Perspective of Self and Achieving the Greater Good
The Japanese definition of self resolves the conflict between “gaman” and “gisei” by portraying ‘self’ as not just in reference to oneself but as a community, a family or even a greater idea that one considers themselves to be part of, thus explaining the prominence and coexistence of both virtues in Sword Art Online where they both compliment, instead of conflict, with one another which enables the players to prevail, giving them the strength and inspiration to ultimately defeat the game and emerge alive back in the real world.
The “Jibun” understanding of self allows us to reconsider what “gaman” and “gisei” truly entails to the players in Sword Art Online. In the episode “Blue-Eyed Demon”, Asuna recklessly charges in to face the powerful floor boss alone in order to protect the surviving members of a clearer guild after witnessing the death of their commander from the monster knowing that she could have been killed as well. She insists that she cannot stand by and watch others die in front of her, a principle which is reflected in the later episode where she sacrifices herself to save Kirito. However, Asuna clearly expresses her desire to return to the real world “I want to go back. After all, there are lots of things that I never got the chance to do there”. On the surface, her actions might seem contradictory but with an understanding of “Jibun”, we can interpret her actions in a different light: displaying both self-preservation and sacrifice in the sense where although she wants to return to the real world, she prioritises the survival of those around her, believing that her own life is worth their freedom from the game and opportunity to return to normalcy in the real world. Similarly, Kirito’s seemingly foolish and suicidal willingness to take up Kayaba’s deal for a chance to defeat him knowing that that he had little chance of surviving a battle with the very creator of the game whose tactical skill and knowledge would most definitely outclass his own in “The End of the World” reveals Kirito’s inclination to risk his life for even the slightest possibility of freeing the other players as seen from his flashbacks to scenes of death and suffering of those around him which compels him to agree to the duel to put an end to their imprisonment.
In the case of Sword Art Online, the notion “Jibun” implies the preservation of all players through the resilience and sacrifices of a few. Players willing to sacrifice themselves to protect others see their actions as part of their will to ensure that the lives of others are preserved so that they may be freed. They view self-preservation as not only staying alive but more importantly ensuring the survival of their family, friends and the wider community which may necessitate the own sacrifice in certain circumstances.
Reconciling “Gaman” and “Gisei”
All things considered, there is a need for us to acknowledge and resolve the false dichotomy between self-preservation and sacrifice as both values coexist with one another within Japanese culture in line in the way they perceive “self”. This explains the apparent hypocrisies in the way players in Sword Art Online treat the issues of “gaman” and “gisei” – wanting to do whatever they can to ensure the survival of others yet being vehemently against others sacrificing themselves for the same reason.
Ultimately what both values sought out to achieve is the emphasis of placing one’s community over oneself. One must give a part of oneself up in order to achieve self-preservation. The Japanese people have always believed that the maintenance of a peaceful and functional society prevails over an individual’s wants and needs and the values of “gaman and “gisei” reflect those ideals: self-sacrifice being a way to preserve and honour certain virtues and beliefs that one held and the selflessness in its act in turn inspiring others to endure suffering. Players in Sword Art Online exhibit such convictions as well as shown by the clearers’ willingness to endure suffering and sacrifice to safeguard the collective survival and freedom of other players, serving as inspiration for the other players to do the same so that they all may have a chance to return to the real world.
 Reki, Kawahara. Sword Art Online. A-1 Pictures, December 31, 2013.
 Julian, Littler. The art of perseverance: How gaman defined Japan. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 20 March, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190319-the-art-of-perseverance-how-gaman-defined-japan
 Note: Sword Art Online refers to both the name of the animated series and the virtual world where the aforementioned players are trapped in.
 Reki, Kawahara. Sword Art Online. “The End of the World,” A-1 Pictures, December 31, 2013.
 Nancy R. Rosenberger. Introduction. Japanese sense of self. (chap 1, p.4) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
 Reki, Kawahara. Sword Art Online. “The World Seed,”A-1 Pictures, December 31, 2013.
 Reki, Kawahara. Sword Art Online. “Blue-Eyed Demon,” A-1 Pictures, December 31, 2013.