The Beauty And Burden Of Shikata ga nai
By Yumi Nakata
On November 2, 2014
“Shikata nai ne,” says my dad. While growing up in Japan, I can’t remember how many times he has said this to me. It is a phrase that you will hear often in Japan and it represents the underlying mentality shared among Japanese people.
“Shikata (ga) nai” or “Shou (ga) nai” is the Japanese phrase meaning “it can’t be helped.” I would personally translate the phrase as: “It is what it is. We don’t always have control over our lives.”
My father was a Japanese salaryman (office worker). He worked extremely hard to move up the ladder in the company, and we hardly saw him during weekdays. Back then if I complained to him that he wasn’t around he would respond with, “shikata ga nai”.
In Japanese corporate world, long working hours is the norm and there isn’t much you can do about it. My father was doing what he could to support his family, and he was just accepting what seems to be the “norm” and trying to make the most out of it. I am sure that saying “shikata nai” might have even helped him deal with the long working hours. As I grew older, I started to understand the true meanings of “shikata nai”, and I say this to myself at least twice a week now.
Some Westerners criticize Japanese people for saying “shikata ga nai” because the phrase shows our pessimism. We should not be passive and keep on trying instead of giving up on our goals. Especially in the US, pessimism is often frowned upon, but is it that negative to say “shikata nai” or have the “shikata nai” mentality?
there are times we need to just accept reality because we don’t always have control over every situation
As the Buddhist concept has become more popular in the West, more people here seem to embrace the concept of “mindfulness.” Life isn’t always pleasant and suffering is part of the life. So we become more mindful of both positive and negative feelings and embrace reality while living in this present moment. So I wanted to take this opportunity to emphasize the beauty of the phrase “shikata ga nai” and it isn’t always bad to say the phrase. Especially, if you are constantly stressed and overworked, perhaps you can give yourself a little break and say “shikata nai ne..”
My current company makes all the employees pay for parking and if you sleep in and don’t get to the office by 8:30 am all the prime parking spots are taken, with the closest parking structure being a few blocks away at the top of a hill!
I used to be pretty stressed out over this, but now I just tell myself, “shikata ga nai”. My company is not going to change the policy, as everybody pays for parking and I just have to get up early and get there before 8:30 am. If I have to park on top of the hill, I am just getting some exercise as I sit in the office all day long.
So whenever I get frustrated with this situation in the morning, I say “shikata nai” and for some reason, I feel less frustrated. I can do something about it by trying to find a different job, making my employer change the parking policy (that will never happen) but overall, I am happy with other areas of my employment so I am ok with this situation.
Since I am more comfortable with the concept of “shikata nai,” I feel like I can fully live in the present moment. I am still goal oriented and this helps me be more focused on what needs to be done and I get on with the situation without pumping up my blood pressure. Unnecessary frustration and anger do affect our health adversely, and the concept of “shikata nai” might be one of the reasons contributing to the longevity of Japanese people.
That being said, I think that it is very important to have a sense of balance. I don’t want to say “shikata ga nai” whenever I encounter a tough situation. I try not to sweat the small stuff so I use the phrase “shikata ga nai” in that sense. But I still feel that there are things that I can do to improve the quality of my life, and I do not wish to settle for less if I could do something about the situation.
Although there are many things that we cannot control, we are in control of our responses. I used to reject the “shikata ga nai” attitude entirely, but now I do embrace it and say this to simply control my natural responses to the unfairness/discomfort of life itself.
Again, the balance is very important. Japanese people are more conditioned to say “shikata ga nai” and endure with uncomfortable situations instead of speaking up to fix the issue. The mentality is strongly linked to the repressed nature of the Japanese society that values the harmony and the peace. Westerners can learn from this “shikata ga nai” mentality, and be flexible enough to adopt this concept for their own needs.