Shikata Ga Nai: "There is Nothing to be Done"

Posted on: Sun, 04/26/2015 - 01:03 By: Tom Swiss

We had promotion testing scheduled back in February, but it had to be rescheduled due to the bad weather. Then our regular classes got cancelled a few times due to weather, and once due to construction. So even though we tried to contact people by e-mail and the website, some people didn't get the word about the rescheduling, and they missed their opportunity to test and will have to wait until May.

I had to write an e-mail to one of my young student's parents to explain the situation, and there's a Japanese phrase I wish I could have used that would have summed it all up: shikata ga nai, 仕方が無い. A literal reading of the kanji is "doing alternative, nothing/none/not". It's usually translated as "there is nothing to be done." ("Shou ga nai" is a more informal version of the same phrase.) "Shikata" here means "an alternate action", and "ga nai" means "there is not", so we could read it a little more literally as "there is no alternative." Idiomatically it carries a little bit of the idea we would express in English as "life goes on".

This is often cited as a uniquely Japanese attitude. It was spoken of quite a bit after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, when the world was amazed at the calm manner in which ordinary people handled the disaster.

Of course we have ways of saying it in English, from "life goes on" to the metaphorical "no use crying over spilt milk" to the idiomatic "ah, well", but I like the directness of shikata ga nai. And sometimes it's said to be a weakness of Japanese culture that it makes people too ready to say this, that it conditions them to stop looking for alternatives. A little less shikata ga nai might have made TEPCO more vigilant to problems at Fukushima, might make the Japanese politicl system more responsive.

But I think most Americans could use a little more of it. Anytime you find that you're upset, it's worth asking, "Is there anything else to be done?" If the answer is "no", if shikata ga nai, then there's no use adding to your stress by ruminating over it. It is as it is. That doesn't mean that you have to be happy about it -- your emotions, after all, are part of how it is as it is -- but it's a good way to cut down on self-generated stress.

And if there is something to do, then don't sit around worrying about it, do that thing. For that, there is another important Japanese expression: Ganbatte kudasai! "Do your best, I ask you."

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