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The Beauty And Burden Of Shikata ga nai

Stuff happens. It's how you deal with it that makes your life.

By 4 min read 14

“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.

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  • Doki Doki says:

    i was watching anime and idk how i ended up here..
    ¯_(ツ)_/¯ shikata ga nai…

  • John V. Karavitis says:

    The Man in the High Castle, Season 1, Episode 2, timestamp 49:07, Inspector Kido says this to Frank Frink right before he is taken out to the firing squad.

  • Amber Red says:

    What is the proper way to spell shou ga nai ?

  • Ash says:

    It’s been 10+ years since I took a math class and I recently decided to study again at night while I’m raising my babies & toddler. I felt embarrassed that I had to review multiplication, division, fractions, etc. But then I happened to be reading a manga where one of the divine characters just started school with mortals & had to go study middle school-level English in order to keep up with the high school English. Another person made fun of him and he simply replied, “shikata ga nai.” This phrase made me feel better ^_^

  • TokyoChris says:

    This very is similar to the Zen expression “The only problem that exists is not accepting things the way they are – this is the cause of all suffering”. Very true – to me at lest!

  • primalxconvoy says:

    Great ideas expressed here. I would say that in America and many other countries, regardless of Buddhism, this also exists. Concepts such as “sh@t happens”, ” Thai time “, ” That’s life “, ” No worries “, etc are all reflections of this. What I think DOES change is the situation or condition that is encompassed by this idea. In some countries, being late is fine (” Thai/Indian time “), whereas in Japan, I doubt a large delivery or tardy in-time for work would be considered ” shoganai”.

    Also, this concept is a two-way street. If people accept harsh situations concerning themselves as “the norm”, then it’s understandable that those very same people will not report problems or try to solve ones regarding their company or group, either. A case in point is the idea of ” just keeping your head down ” at work; Although workers doing this cause little or no problems, they also neither report or try to solve problems (especially ones in advance), if they can help it and especially if it can not be blamed upon them if the problem does actually occur.

  • maulinator says:

    I use “no ginger” as a way choosing the fights I want to have. Some burdens and irritations in life you give up on because the effort involved to fix it causes more stress than the original problem. “No ginger” is used when the fight is not worth having. More as a way of saying I am looking past this problem rather than acceptance. More “Whatever” than “It is what it is”, at least for me. Life will nickel and dime you to death if all you say is “no ginger,” but not saying it at all may cost you more as well, so choose your battles.

  • Brent Pollard says:

    Living with chronic illness, it is an attitude I’ve had to learn. It helps to know that the one sure thing you have control over is your reaction to whatever happens in life. You can choose to view it positively or neutrally and not let it get you down. Thanks for the article.

  • paula martinez says:

    It is a good phrase sometimes, others I’m not sure. I was born in middle lower class with really low opportunities, but I changed my life in a 180 degree realizing I did have the power to change most of on what people just gives up. While having a relationship with a Japanese, I must confess I found myself lost in all the burdens he had and how shou ga nai became into an impossible barrier to cross. He was ok with many things I could not live with. Maybe orientals really understand about patience and dedication without complaining, but for me it was a waste of life. “しょうがないね”… I tend to use this word when I actually have tried my best, to the point of encounter the freedom of the others, and yes, it does help me to let go.

  • Sol Nakagama says:

    I really liked your post.
    I think this is related to the western concept of “If it has a solution, don’t worry. If it doesn’t have a solution, there’s no point in worrying either” or something like it…

    What I personally don’t like about the concept of the “shou ga nai” is the fact that some young people tend to abuse it and use it to explain their own lack of passion, ambition or inaction. They don’t make decisions, but let the enviroment make the decisions for them…

  • Jinxter says:

    Went to DLI (Defense Language Institute) to ‘relearn’ my Mother tongue, and during the course (21 months) my class adopted the phrase Shikata ga nai as the class motto. We even got class Polo shirts with this phrase on it. To this day, I still say Shikata ga nai or Shou ga nai whenever I start feeling frustrated. It DOES help. Good article, and the first I have seen for this phrase. Thank you for writing it.

  • Darran Hight says:

    My Dad always says “It is what it is”. I try to spin it and say “it is what you make of it”. Sometimes his version is easier to deal with. Great post!

  • E. Thomas says:

    “It’s okay to get bent over”…I’m sure the person bending you over isn’t doing much of it themselves. Don’t be complacent with those who exploit you for their benefit.



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