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Debunked: The uniquely Japanese "shou ga nai"

shou ga nai

Back in 2005, Japan Times science writer Rowan Hooper noted US-based medical studies which, although inconclusive, suggested that aging-related conditions could be ameliorated through transcendental meditation (TM) techniques such as mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation. Hooper went on to suggest that Japanese lifespans may be long due to similar effects brought about by two factors: Buddhism and "shikata ga nai mentality".

If you have any contact with "Japanology" musings, you've no doubt heard of shikata ga nai, or its other common form shou ga nai, as yet another entry on a loooong list of "uniquely Japanese" concepts. The phrase, as normally used, is a simple expression of resignation, of giving in or going along when things are beyond one's control – as in, "Oh well, what are you gonna do."

From Hooper's article:

I think [the longevity] is down to Japan's culture of shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped). If something out of one's control happens, Japanese people will often say "shikata ga nai" and get on with the situation, without rupturing blood vessels in frustration.

This might seem to contradict the karoshi (death by overwork) phenomenon in Japan's world of work, but I think that the easygoing nature of the Japanese, exemplified by "shikata ga nai", could partially explain the long lifespans in this country.

Putting aside karoshi and whether there's anything unusual at all about that in Japan, we have a description of "the Japanese" as "easygoing". Sigh. Half the time the Japanologists are telling me that it's the foreigners who are easygoing and laid-back, and the Japanese who are the uptight ones. The other half of the time, guys like this are claiming the opposite. I do wish they'd get their story straight. And is this author making another claim that needs to be looked into, that non-Japanese don't "get on with the situation" in times of trouble? Such loose claim-making is shou ga nai indeed, I say.

But let's focus on the special term in question. If shou ga nai is a unique contributor to Japanese lifespans, then it obviously has to be a pretty unique concept. Which is precisely what no shortage of Japanologists love to claim – right up to, as I've experienced first-hand, insisting that the concept simply has no expression in other languages.

Really? Is there any substance to such a "Japanese only" claim here? I actually sent a Letter to the Editor to the Japan Times back then, responding to the article as follows:

In his June 9 article "TM bolsters notion of a Japanese mindset over morality", Rowan Hooper mentions intriguing studies linking Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice to improved health and longer lives. He then suggests two points of connection between this effect and the Japanese life-span: Buddhism, and the expression "shikata ga nai". Specifically, Hooper notes that "TM is not the same as latent Buddhism", that saying "shikata ga nai" differs from TM chanting, and that the idea sits "without any solid evidence" – but then brushes aside those problems and plows ahead with the theory.

Let's pick on the oft-heard – and bizarre – notion that "shikata ga nai" is somehow a "Japanese" concept. Looking only at English ways to express resignation, we begin with dictionary equivalents like "It can't be helped" and "There's nothing to do for it". These are too stiff for many people's tastes, so there are more everyday phrases: "Oh well", "So it goes", and "What can you do?" for starters. Apparently wanting more, English speakers dip into French to borrow its "C'est la vie" (also heard in English: "That's life" or "Such is life"). They've christened special-use versions such as "You can't fight city hall". And too often one hears street-level renditions, of which I'll point to just one: "S**t happens". Indeed, the only problem with expressing "shikata ga nai" in English is selecting from the choices!

I won't belabor the difference between casual layman Buddhism and dedicated TM practice, as Hooper (one one hand) already establishes that. I will point out, though, that the life spans of other advanced nations, especially in Scandinavia, are almost as high as Japan's. I wonder, then, what TM-inducing Buddhist practices and expressions of resignation those long-lived Icelanders are employing? Hooper should stick with his excellent columns on real science and steer clear of the non-science (and nonsense) that is "Japanology"!

I hesitate to snipe at Hooper, who seems like a fine fellow, wrote some very nice science columns, and in the article in question, did play down his shikata ga nai theory as just a passing idea. But for the record, and for all the Japanologists bent on adding this phrase to their creaky list of "uniquely Japanese" tropes, I'll repeat:

There are plenty of ways to express shou ga nai in English (and, without question, in other languages as well). You should be able to easily add to my list above. I found even more expressions in typical Japanese-English dictionaries, like "It's no use", "[We] have no choice", and "There is no help for it". Back to the far more casual side, I'll also note the modern phrase "Life's a bitch and then you die" – an odd and ugly expression, to be sure, but its sentiment runs right alongside shou ga nai. One could also point to pat expressions like "What's done is done" or the hoary "No use crying over spilled milk" – both more specialized in usage than the more broadly-applicable shou ga nai, but again, carrying a similar message.

So there's nothing remotely unique about shou ga nai as an expression or a concept, and there's no shortage of ways to say the same in English. But how about the attitude behind it? Japanologists often paint shou ga nai as prima facie evidence of a resigned, even fatalistic mindset that too often leads to inaction. Is this a valid view of "the Japanese" or even, as sometimes claimed, "Easterners"?

Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this mindset seems to get ascribed to a heck of a lot of people. I'll have to add specific examples as I come across them, but haven't you heard of Middle Easterners described as "fatalistic"? Or the people of the Indian subcontinent? Or Russians? Or all the "laid-back" and "easygoing" people of tropical lands? Or just about everywhere, it seems, where a "Westerner" tries to lead workers in a foreign land only to complain that his charges just shrug and plod along instead of embracing ambitious corporate life (or whatever is being pushed)? Hmm, so maybe it's a non-"Western" thing... but wait, isn't the US just crawling with people who gush "It's in God's hands now" – a theological shou ga nai – at the drop of a hat?

I make no claims about national proclivities toward fatalism; I'm the evidence guy, not the impressions-and-anecdotes guy. But I've got a heck of an evidential sledgehammer to wallop those who see the phrase shou ga nai as some indicator of a Japanese do-nothing, give-in fatalism. It's this:

Japan is one of the world's largest economies, firmly among global leaders in infrastructure, technology, education, health, social systems, and living standards. How did those come about? Through work. Effort. Taking risks. Learning. Trying. Fixing. Doing stuff. The very opposite of shrugging and doing nothing. Japanologists can talk all they want about Japanese shou ga nai inaction in the face of challenges, but every soaring skyscraper, educated child, and cured disease in the country proclaims that the people in Japan are just as action-oriented as people anywhere else. In short, shou ga nai is only a phrase (and a mundane one at that); there's no evidence for painting it as a "uniquely Japanese mindset" of any sort.

Got any more good ways to express shou ga nai in other languages? Please send them in; let's make a list! And more importantly: When you hear someone making the goofy claim "shou ga nai is a uniquely Japanese concept", send them here for a good debunking.



Before reading your article

Before reading your article or the column to which it refers, I had thought myself that 'shou ga nai' is pretty Japanese. Not because it's a uniquely Japanese expression or anything, but because Japanese people use the phrase much more frequently than Westerners (I'm British by the way)Rather than being a good way of thinking (as Hooper suggests), I think it's actually negative because it makes Japanese people politically apathetic relative to other people. That's largely why the LDP were in power for nearly 54 years, why men and women aren't considered equal in society, and why despite any particular homophobia, LGBT rights are still lagging.

Disagree to Agree

   I agree and disagree. If the Japanese people want change they will get change, it just may take a bit longer. I know it is hard for most westerners to understand that the Japanese people are happy with this, or they simply do not care. There is no political apathy, it is due to their culture which is different than our own. That part of our culture is the same in many European countries The UK for example, The United States, yes I am aware they are not part of Europe, but the majority are of European blood. The US is just all the countries in the world shoved into one country. Still Japan is very different than our western cultures. Though they do protest   In western culture people are very opinionated and loud. We are encouraged to protest if we want change, though most of the time protest are either hate rallies masked as protests, or the recent 99% movement. The Japanese however are quiet, they can tell more about a person by facial expresions and body language. They are also brought up to not make a scene, or a lot of noise. They can have their opinion and they can even voice it, and they do protest it.   The phrase Shouganai is kind of misunderstood, specially among people obsessed with Japan, but know little of it,. You know the ones who think it is a safe haven for nerds into Anime. . .Otaku are looked down upon, Japan hasn't had it's Geek/Nerd(otaku) Revolution yet, unlike in western culture a lot of countries are now ruled by Geeks/Nerds lol (I am a Computer Network Security Admin, so yea I am a Geek.) Here is an example. A Dorm RA has to put the other students needs above theirs so they have a rougher time studying. They would say Shouganai, I chose this I must live with my choices. Yea they may have to deal with the negative parts, but they do not stress over them, which is a good thing. The less stress the better.   On gender equality, you are right, but women in Japan like not working, though that his changing now. Being openly gay can have an effect on your job moreso if you are a man in Japan. Because some people think gay men are more feminine, and they want a masculine employee specially when it comes to sales positions. I have heard from friends who I game with online say they have female co workers come out of the closet and nothing changed, everyone was fine. I have also read a few stories that ended that way for men as well, but those are few and far between, at least when I had to do a paper on the LGBT community in Japan, which was fraking hard. I forget the name of the district and the city. . .it may be Tokyo I am not sure. There the LGBT community thrives. Still you are right they have a bit to go, but they will get there and meet less resitance as compared to what people have to go through to get equality in places like America. . . America where all men are created equal , unless you have boobs and a vagina, black, or LGBT. America is so ass backwards.

re: disagree to agree

You must be talking about the gay district in Shinjuku which is disappearing due to encroachment resulting from a rising property values and the ability to meet people online instead of in bars. The district is very small and will probably be gone within ten years."America is so ass backwards." At least in America you can get married. Japan has a ways to go in terms of treating gay men in particular to something beyond the Hobson's Choice of being completely closeted or being seen as "Hard Gay." The only visible gayness in the mainstream is mockery, from the scenes in Final Fantasy VII to Hard Gay. Yaoi isn't real gayness and you don't even see that in video games yet.


"Japan is one of the world's largest economies, firmly among global leaders in infrastructure, technology, education, health, social systems, and living standards."It takes all of 3 minutes to debunk most of these claims, though your point about 'one of the world's largest economies' is vacuously true, given the population. "Firmly among global leaders in ... social systems" is particularly misguided. You might want to ask one of the nearly 100,000 people who hold a Japanese "entertainer" visa what they think of your claim. 

Many phrases in English, however...

...rare is the usage of any of them, especially with strangers.  In fact, even within acquaintances, using any variation in English is met with disdain for the user, as the United States in general takes great pride in solving unsolvable problems and to say you give up solving it by saying, "it looks good from my house", or "what is is" is asking for solutions to be immediately supplied by someone else, whether desired or not.  I submit the Japanaes usage is more accepted between strangers.  Can someone confirm?   


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