Shikata ga nai
Shikata ga nai (仕方が無い?), pronounced [ɕi̥kata ɡa nai], is a Japanese language phrase meaning "it cannot 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.
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 endure, including the Allied Occupation of Japan and the internment of Japanese Americans 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."
In Asian American Women: The "Frontiers" Reader, author Debbie Storrs 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.
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..."
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The phrase appears as important theme in a range of books relating to major events in the history of the Japanese people. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's Farewell to Manzanar devoted a chapter to the concept 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. The historical manga Barefoot Gen shows many of the citizens in Hiroshima using 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. Similarly, John Hersey's Hiroshima applies the phrase after efforts to assist fatally injured hibakusha ceased.
The phrase is also introduced or explained by Japanese or Japanese-American characters in books such as the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, James Clavell's Shōgun and David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.
In the book The Hostile Beaches by Gordon D. Shirreffs, the character Lieutenant Carney says the phrase. When asked what it means, he says it means "Let's get to work", not knowing its actual meaning. Later, Bob Dunbar says the words to confuse searching Japanese soldiers.
The phrase has been adopted by the Metasploit framework to name an encoder that implements polymorphic XOR additive feedback. The name is appropriate since the polymorphic encoding means there is no hope of antivirus products detecting malicious code encoded using this method.
- Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston Farewell to Manzanar. 2002, page 9
- H. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of modern Japan, 2001, p.676; John Dower, Embracing Defeat, 1999, p.606
- Gordon D. Shirreffs (1964). The Hostile Beaches. The Westminster Press. pp. 83, 97.