Thursday, February 24, 2011

The problem of Shouganai: What can be done?

Shouganai is a widely used phrase in Japan, but the philosophy behind it goes much deeper, embedded at the very core of the society. Erik recently wrote to great extent about this phrase over at his travel journal. I also have come to feel the desire to examine the phenomenon of shouganai.

Shouganai (しょうがない) is actually a shortened or slurred way of saying shiyou ga nai. Directly translated, shiyou ga nai means, “there is no way of doing/going.” It is used interchangeably with shikata ga nai, which translates identically.

The idea of “it can’t be helped” or “nothing can be done” isn’t distinctly a Japanese idea. Americans like me occasionally encounter situations that we have no way of handling the outcome. The difference is that Americans don’t live their lives by this continual acceptance of defeat and helplessness. I like to think that I take great interest in the direction of my life and enthusiastically put forth the effort to ensure that I’m headed in a favorable direction.

The problem of shouganai is so deeply ingrained into the very fiber of Japanese society. There is an understandable degree of shouganai toward being nonintrusive to others, but by my observation Japanese people allow their acceptance of situations go far beyond just being considerate to a point where it’s self degrading.

Japanese society has created a tense atmosphere where the expression of opinions contrary to the popularly accepted (in other words, the first expressed idea unconsciously absorbed and allowed to take precedence) views is looked upon unfavorably. Even with the chance that a new opinion would be seen more favorable than the presently existing view, the idea of shouganai suppresses the desire to allow that opinion to be suppressed. One fears being stigmatized if they express their ideas.

Even worse, the response of shouganai is met with agreements and praise. I hate using the expression, but when I do my dislike for it is only strengthened when the Japanese listeners respond with, “Oh, you understand shouganai well. Good for you!” The same goes for responses to Japanese people, “That’s right; there’s nothing that can be done about the situation.”

There comes a point where one questions whether people are just too lazy to put any effort into improving situations and outcomes. Surely not everything in their life is the result of things unrelated to their own doing. Japanese people need to take the reins and recognize the outcomes of their efforts and either accept that it is good or accept it as a self failure and quit relying on the umbrella of “things are out of my hands.”

Granted, there are some situations where shouganai is appropriate in meaning, such as the weather, but the feeling behind it is still overwhelmingly like the emotions of a beached whale (I don’t like that such a metaphor popped into my head, but it seemed to sum things up most, and not to mention the irony of comparing Japanese people to whales… but that’s another story).

37 comments:

  1. interesting post... my japanese gf says shouganai quite often when talking about things that have happened recently that she now would like to move on from. I dont really see it as a negative or anti-progress way of viewing the past... at least for her... i just think its a expression of "oh well, its in the past now... lets not regret things n just move on"

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    1. It's not a way of saying, "I don't want to try." It's a way of saying, "I see no solution so I'm not going to complain about it."

      Japanese respect problem solvers as well. Complaining just doesn't solve problems.

      If someone says shouganai and you think it can be helped then if (it's something important) you should say so.

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    2. I quite agree. I think it's because japanese values the group more than western culture.

      When a problem happen, they will be less likely to spend time identifying who's fault it is just take it from here.

      It's a form of respect that can prevent embarrassment and reinforce group cohesion.

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    3. I sort of agree with shouganai in certain situation. Especially situations that I have no influence over. It would be a waste of time and energy to complain about something that is not in my power to change. I rather use my energy on things I can change.

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  2. While I feel this entry is tinged with a little bit of essentializing and generalizations about Japanese behavior (and a hint of ethnocentrism), it is very true that the idea of things being "out of ones hands" as an automatic response in certain situations due to societal pressure is a problem in Japan. For example, a report just released clearly indicates that the lack of accountability and proper oversight at the Fukushima nuclear power plant for years prior to 3/11 allowed the disaster to happen...

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  3. I'm sorry, this doesn't sit quite well with me.
    I'm an American. American born and raised, and I love it. I do like my culture. Let's get that out of the way. I feel as if you are largely misinterpreting this.
    "There comes a point where one questions whether people are just too lazy to put any effort into improving situations and outcomes."
    "The difference is that Americans don’t live their lives by this continual acceptance of defeat and helplessness."
    I can't help but to point out how quickly the Japanese rebuilt after the tsunami where as we took so long to even start rebuilding after Katrina. I interpret this phrase as it meaning "We can't change what happened, let's continue on." I feel as if we Americans as a whole tend to be the ones who freeze up in the face adversity, not the Japanese. Maybe not individuals, like you and me, but as a whole, I believe we do. This sounds very ethnocentric to me, and it also sounds as if you have an idealized view of our own culture.

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    1. Thanks for the response.

      Understand, this was well into my sixth month in Japan, and one month before the disastrous quakes and tsunami. As a fourth year student of Japanese language and East Asian studies, I was already well prepared for cultural differences. Certain aspects just grate on you over time.

      I took a harsh stance. Exaggerative, yes. But the opportunity for further analysis is important.

      There IS a societal pressure against expression of differing viewpoints. To a degree. There IS a societal collective. To a degree.

      There is strength in that collective, though. The Japanese live up to their industrious reputation. Their recovery efforts put many to shame.

      I tried to be careful with my wording, as with the first quote you called out. It's admission of a point of questioning, not a declaration. In context, the second quote calls out the interpretation I paint.

      I agree with your interpretation of the phrases meaning, in specific context. I don't believe it applies in the present sense, when a matter of adversity is developing or being experienced. There is a predisposition to do nothing about it, but that's not uniquely Japanese.

      Idealized view of our own culture? In certain aspects, yes. In others, not so much. I won't deny ethnocentric underpinnings within the perception I developed at that certain point in time.

      Again, thanks for your response. I appreciate the feedback.

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    2. Thank you for your response as well.
      Reading over my comment, I feel as if I came across as harsh and accusatory; I'm very sorry about that.
      I am very thankful for your mature and educated response. Rather than avoiding the points I brought up, you addressed them and addressed them well. I truly appreciate it. Again, thank you for your insight! Have a great day!

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    3. Not at all! I hope I didn't come off as too defensive, because I certainly was in a different emotional state at the time of the post which did give way to some ethnocentrism. It's quite the different experience looking back on it. You bring up some very applicable points. Thanks for sharing!

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    4. I'm of mixed race, Japanese and American, and have a similar views on both sides.

      Japanese culture is very admirable in many ways, including their ability to stare terrible situations in the face and act with courage. I think many Americans admire this.

      I do agree that this is a deeply ingrained sentiment in Japan, both to their benefit and detriment.

      I think it is a positive to move forward in the face of adversity, especially during times of disaster. It is good to maintain composure, and face the task at hand and work through it. Talking and feeling feelings has no benefit when there is immediate work to be done.

      In the long run through, not tending to feeling and each other leads to repression and i've seen this a lot in Japanese society, and it rears its head in many ways. It ignores feelings as a thing that has to be worked on.

      The above communication is a great show of how different our two cultures have the potential to communicate. When someone reacts emotionally, empathizing and hearing what they have to say is productive; this doesn't often happen in Japanese society and in my experience Shoganai is often used as an excuse to deal with the real difficulty of human connection.

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  4. Personally I think you have to give lots of credit to Buddhism for shouganai.

    The Buddhists teach mindfulness essentially as a way to be "in the now." The past is the past the future has not yet happened we only have now.

    Therefore shouganai, and its "it is what it is", attitude is probably based off of Japanese Culture in relation to Buddhism.

    I'm having a hard time coming up with a comparable way Americans use a phrase based off of religion not only as a phrase but also as something to live by.

    I could be wrong though.

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    1. Kind of like "It's in God's hands" I suppose? That's not as culturally engrained though.

      You may be right about Buddhism having some influence. At the very least, it may have helped reinforce the mindset behind the phrase.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    2. I know this is a very old article and response, but if you should happen upon it, I thought it interesting to give my cultural viewpoint.

      I too am an American, proud and very grateful for the freedom we have in our society and culture. However, I am half Lebanese, and so growing up I was exposed to much of the culture of overseas Lebanon, for many of my family were remiss to adapt entirely to a different society.

      I can tell you that in Arabic culture to this day, the concept of "متل ما الله بيريد", "mitl ma Allah byiriid," or "Whatever God wants" literally, is very much alive and well. Having family from Lebanon, all of whom are Catholic but of course influenced by Arab culture, I hear this phrase more often than I would like to. However, I hear that in actual Muslim nations this sentiment is felt even stronger. So it is apparently a feeling that can be found in Abrahamic religions as well as Dharmic. And of course, in many Muslim societies, there is a great pressure to simply go along with the crowd, perhaps not speak out against injustice, or against the sheikh, and use "mitl ma Allah byiriid" to hide behind.

      I myself am devoutly faithful, but it seems to me that many people use any religion or any societal pressure to simply get out of doing anything that requires too much courage, diligence, or thinking. Americans are certainly no exception to this, but at least it feels like, to me, the haughty cowboy in us makes us indignant enough - or ornery enough - to face difficulty head on, rather than submit so easily.

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  5. Ah I really enjoyed reading this tonight,

    Thanks for your insight towards Japanese ideology and culture. It's great to see others who look into things like this as well. Shouganai does have roots to my knowledge to Buddhism as well as old shogunate facade. Your knowledge and comments about it being culturally buried or en-grained is also correct as it is also part of a basic Japanese mannerism a good percentage of the population still has and retains to this day, It's part of what makes Japanese people, Well.. Japanese people. Also unbeknownst to some peoples knowledge Japanese mindset is also determined by the way that their society has been for so long, since they have been very homogeneous from a stand point for so long. They also have an acute equal balance equal standout point of view.

    For things that happen, From some peoples view It just happens and for others who have tiered off or tilted socially or emotionally, Their stand point will be a bit different on things this is also a wing of Shouganai. I personally haven't dealt with the phenomenon of Shouganai for as long as other things, My studies all but help and envelop more into things like this aspect, Which is quite exciting like everything else, But nonetheless this is a great Article, as per everything else I get to examine while in Japan things like this put a smile on my face.

    Thank you so much and Goodluck Sir!

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  6. Real talk, though, my host mother uses shouganai for everything. Stuck in traffic? Shouganai. Dropped a dish? Shouganai. Forgot to pay the phone bill, spilled wine on her favorite top, knocked over a vase, missed the train, got a flat tire. Shouganai. For the first three months I was here, I thought it meant something like, 'Well, f*** me."

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  7. Seems to me rather similar to stoicism, read Epictitus discourses.

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    1. Buddhism and Stoicism are very similar and contemporary beliefs, makes you wonder if there is a connection.

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  8. "For the first three months I was here, I thought it meant something like, 'Well, f*** me.""

    Hahaha, well, doesn't it, essentially?

    I agree with several others here that this post is essentialist and ethnocentric. There are cultural differences, but I don't think the Japanese would agree that they "live their lives by this continual acceptance of defeat and helplessness" or that they don't "take great interest in the direction of [their lives] and enthusiastically put forth the effort to ensure that [they're] headed in a favorable direction."

    Just because they have different social customs and protocols, and go about saying and doing things differently from Americans, it doesn't mean they're wrong. What an American may see as "self-degrading," a Japanese may see as "humbling," which is entirely different and involves a complex, ongoing process in which conscious decisions are made. And just because the Japanese have a common phrase for it and Americans don't doesn't mean that "defeatism", "hopelessness" is any less prevalent in the U.S.

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  9. I think we all have a different way of looking at things. As for me, I never get stressed or angry when something goes wrong. For example: A few months ago my phone got stolen by an old lady (yes, that happened) and my car's battery died while I was at the supermarket...Shouganai. I just picked up my groceries and walked to my dorm even though the bags were heavy, it was far and raining.I talked to a friend later and we went to pick up my car. I don't think I was being lazy to put any effort into improving the situation. It just couldn't be helped at the moment, I didn't complain because I know that it wouldn't solve anything. Maybe the whole concept of "shounagai" is being misunderstood in some way.

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    1. Context certainly does make a difference. Thanks for your thoughts. A dead car battery really is an appropriate shouganai moment.

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  10. hehe I liked this word so much living in Japan for 3yrs that I've adopted it as a username for the last 15 years. I don't so much use it in conversation because it does not occur to me. But on on occasion I did use it, I seem to have nailed it. I was on a train and a mother and teen were annoyed with each other. She was being an unsuccessful disciplinarian...and she looked at me with a sullen gesture...and I said 'shouganai' and smiled. And she said 'Yes, shouganai'. Oh well. Reading your article reminds me of the 'Who is John Galt?' phrase used by Ayn Rand in 'Atlas Shrugged'.

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  11. Interesting how the non-Japanese view this concept...

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  12. I always get a chuckle out of jealous westerners. Just one question: if they have such a defeatist attitude, why are they kicking our asses in education, science, tech, and manufacturing?


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  13. I think you have the ideas of western and eastern culture very well in terms of how they view societal expectations and outcomes. However it would be foolish to use western philosophy in an eastern culture just as it would be foolish to use eastern philosophy in the west. It is not so much as accepting defeat, which Americans and many Western countries use to measure success by: wins and losses. But rather it is a more Shinto, Buddhist, Taoist, Zen belief that lets nature take it's course in acceptance. Japanese culture is very different as they do not view uncontrollable circumstances as a set-back, but rather let nature take it's course just as the river flows into the ocean. It is a much more calming state and less stressful way of living than trying to change things that cannot be, just as an Earthquake or Tsunami.

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  14. What a lovely way you have of describing it. I remember eons ago (as in the mid-90s) when I lived, worked and studied in Japan hearing a (nihonjin) colleague resignedly say about his daughter marrying a Canadian man "shouganai": it was the first time I'd heard it and it made me HOWL with laughter. I am now married to a Japanese man with whom I have two hapa children, both of whom regularly hear "shouganai" when shit happens. Aha!

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  15. Shikataganai is a large side of Japanese culture, the conscientious decision to not make the moment negative by pondering or putting effort in something that can't be changed. It's a very humble social tactic used in many cultures to promote positivity.

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  16. Stupid american babbling nonsense. Pathetic.

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    1. Cowardly, dismissive, anonymous response. Pathetic.

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  17. You come off as ignorant and arrogant in this post. There are more layers to Japanese words and customs beyond the basic dictionary definition. As an outsider to Japan, why do you act as though you understand the deep inner working and mindset of Japanese language and culture? It would be more bearable if you could show humility and state that there are aspects about the culture you may never fully grasp, but instead you take the route of acting as though your cultural viewpoint should apply to all of Japan, and that their perspective is inferior to that of Americans.

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    1. You are welcome to view some of my comments that followed up this post which give greater context to my mindset at the time of writing this.

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  18. I find this post really odd, and I think it's a pretty big misunderstanding of shōganai.

    Is it not also true that the vast majority of people in America are conservative and generally wary of new ideas? Outside of metropolitan areas, college campuses, and the entertainment media, most places I've lived in America experience this same tendency to shun and be anxious about new ideas that go against the status quo and established norms.

    If you're having a hard time thinking of an example, just look at America's reactionary defensive attitude towards gun culture and the increasing gun violence in our country. Or look at how long it took for anti-bullying campaigns for LGBT people to finally pick up; it's not a recent phenomenon, people int he queer community have been trying to push this issue since the 1970s, and only now is it starting to get such media attention and support, and only from progressive groups.

    The issue of group-think is a problem of human nature and human cultures everywhere. It is a problem of power structures and social dynamics. It's not a "Japanese problem," and it's not even a problem related to the concept of shōganai

    In America, when people want to express their opinions, they'll do it in just about any situation, except for a situation where expressing your opinion would get you fired from a job for causing a stir at the workplace. Outside of arguing with your boss or a coworker being seen as unprofessional, Americans have no problem arguing and being loud about anything. We get a serious case of "busybody" and ridiculous tit-for-tat arguments over nothing in our culture.
    People in America will openly argue at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, family vacations, family get-togethers, at the bar with friends, at an outing, at the ball game... People love to get into it here. People like the drama and getting worked up, and then complain how much they hate seeing their extended families for the holidays because it gives them a headache. People will argue over petty personal discrepancies, about personal disagreements, the flavor of the food being serves to them, and, of course, about politics and "meaningful things" that just absolutely have to be discussed at the worst possible time.
    While this is also common in some European and South American cultures, this phenomenon is widely regarded as appalling in many Asian countries.

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  19. Meanwhile in Japan, when many people in a crowd of assemblymen started jeering and taunting at a woman political speaker about her concerns for women's rights in the workforce and childcare programs, one assemblyman who was caught instigating the taunting was forced to apologize and bow very low to the woman speaker. Even though her stance challenged current Japanese policy and can be considered radical to some, it was considered wrong for the politicians to mock her and not take her seriously, and as a result, people considered their behavior unprofessional and unethical.
    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/06/25/tokyo-japan-sexist-taunts/11307175/

    People in Japan don't fear being stigmatized for expressing their ideas. They believe that it is unethical and impolite to express your opinions outside of the appropriate atmosphere for it. People in Japan look down upon arguing over politics at the izakaya or the dinner table. They look down upon gossiping about one's love interests and friends with one's family members, and vice versa, you don't gossip about your family with your friends or boyfriend (rarely you can express concerns about your birth-family with your spouse). It is frowned down upon to argue with your parents, elders, teachers, and superiors. It is okay to disagree, but you only bring it up in the appropriate setting (such as a business conference with the boss where open conversation is invited -- a regular occurrence, even requirement for bosses, in Japan). You never talk about anything at all on the train, because it is considered rude to interrupt people who are sleeping , listening to their headphones, or carefully watching out for when they reach their destination so that they don't miss their stop.

    You will rarely catch a person shouting a greeting at someone across a crowd when indoors. While such a practice is common in clubs and bars in America, if one did this in Japan, most older people would look at you like you were a lunatic. It is considered rude to shout or talk too loudly or boisterously.

    Now, as for Shōganai, that is not a deeply embedded cultural problem of not being allowed to deviate from the established norm.
    Quite the contrary, people will more likely say "shōganai" when you start imposing your American views on them in the middle of a kaiten-zushi lunch. They'll probably just giggle nervously a bit, cover their mouths for a moment, and then say "shōganai, you're a gaijin, it's to be expected" and try to change the topic. And you'll probably get your feathers ruffled and be agitated because the people in Japan won't argue with you over stuff they feel they probably have a better grasp on anyways.
    People in Japan will probably be as tolerant of you and your opposing views, as much as they possibly can, even when they are offended at what they perceive as rudeness and impolite behavior from you.

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  20. Furthermore, people will compliment and encourage you for using "shōganai," not to encourage group-think, but to encourage your learning in a new place, and to make you feel more welcome, even if they're not sure you entirely understand what you're talking about. How kind of them!

    They do this with each other, too. When a Japanese person is trying to learn English, and uses it in conversation, other people will encourage them by saying "Wow, you're English is so good!" even if the person only said one phrase or sentence. They do this because Japanese people are very timid and concerned about people polite, and can find learning new things daunting, and because they all understand this feeling, they want to encourage learning in spite of their inhibitions. They want to encourage improvement, rather than discourage the attempt. So, even when you insult them and misunderstand the deeper philosophy of Shōganai, they will encourage you for using the phrase in situations where it would be appropriate to say "shōganai," even if you don't immediately understand why. They expect that with enough practice and experience of "shōganai" situations, you will eventually cach on and have broadened your mind as a result.

    To be honest, they have more patience than me when it comes to that sort of thing. I happen to love Japanese people a lot, and I don't like it when people say negative things about them because they don't understand their culture.

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  21. I find this video also very helpful in explaining shōganai:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbWPqWDtXAg

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  22. Critter, your posts are a bit worshipful of the Japanese. They're just as flawed as Americans, just in different ways.

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