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).