File:Shikata Ga Nai.jpg

Shikata ga nai (仕方がない?), pronounced [ɕi̥kata ɡa nai], is a Japanese language phrase meaning "it can't be helped" or "nothing can be done about it". Shō ga nai (しょうがない?), pronounced [ɕoː ɡa nai] is an alternative.

Cultural associations

The phrase has been used by many western writers to describe the ability of the Japanese people to maintain dignity in the face of an unavoidable tragedy or injustice, particularly when the circumstances are beyond their control. Historically, it has been applied to situations in which masses of Japanese people as a whole have been made to suffer, including the Allied Occupation of Japan and the internment of Japanese Americans[1] and Japanese Canadians. Thus, when Emperor Shōwa was asked, in his first ever press conference given in Tokyo in 1975, what he thought of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he answered: "It's very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima but it couldn't be helped because that happened in wartime."[2]

In Asian American Women: The "Frontiers" Reader, author Linda Trinh Vo states:

The Japanese phrase shikata ga nai, or "it can't be helped," indicates cultural norms over which one has little control... This notion of suffering in part stems from shikata ga nai: failing to follow cultural norms and social conventions led to a life of little choice but endurance of suffering.[1]

The phrase also can have negative connotations, as some may perceive the lack of reaction to adversity as complacence, both to social and political forces. In a Business Week article, a Western businessman says of Japanese people:

He encourages Japanese not to succumb to the shikata ga nai mentality but to get angry and start behaving like citizens. "Japanese people listen to me because I'm always pushing what the possibilities are and how things can change... to ensure positive economic and political prospects..."[2]

Literary references

  • Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, in her book Farewell to Manzanar, devoted a chapter to the concept, and used it to explain why the Japanese Americans interned in the US during World War II did not put up more of a struggle against the restrictive conditions and policies put upon them.
  • Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's family tragedy Why She Left Us also includes a chapter titled "Shikata ga nai".
  • In the historical manga Barefoot Gen, many of the citizens in Hiroshima use the phrase "Shikata ga nai" to explain why they accept the military rule, and the acceptance of the below-poverty conditions that cause many of their citizens to starve.
  • In the Mars trilogy science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, the phrase is translated as "there is no other choice". Introduced by the Japanese character Hiroko Ai, it becomes common slang among the first Martian colonists, and is used when the constraints of their situation allow only one course of action.
  • James Clavell's Shōgun uses this phrase as a subtheme, although there it is rendered as "Shigata ga nai", which is a misspelling – there is no rendaku in the term.
  • Graham Salisbury's Under the Blood Red Sun uses this phrase for a chapter title.
  • Shoganai is a track on King Crimson's Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With EP.
  • Shikata ga-nai was referenced in John Hersey's Hiroshima after efforts to assist fatally injured hibakusha, or survivors of either of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ceased.
  • David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars provides a good example of the concept of "Shikata ga nai" through the novel's Japanese-American victim, Kabuo Miyamoto, who believes he cannot change the circumstances surrounding his unfair trial due to prejudices remaining from WWII.

See also


  1. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston Farewell to Manzanar. 2002, page 9
  2. H. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of modern Japan, 2001, p.676; John Dower, Embracing Defeat, 1999, p.606

External links

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