The curse of ‘shikata ga nai’

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“The Japanese phrase that I particularly hate is ‘shikata ga nai,’ (it can’t be helped)” said a friend who had spent some years teaching in Japan. I responded that it was surely appropriate if you were driving a car and the traffic lights turned red just when you got to them. She accepted that in such a case it was acceptable to use the phrase.

Her objection was to the use of the phrase “shikata ga nai” in circumstances when it was in fact possible to do something. She argued that the phrase was tantamount to “I can’t be bothered” or “We just have to accept it.” It implied much greater passivity than the French phrase “je m’en fou” which suggests the English “I don’t give a damn about it” or “I couldn’t care less.”

I asked a Japanese journalist who was present whether “shiyo ga nai,” which the dictionaries suggest is a synonym for “shikata ga nai,” really did mean the same thing. We agreed that it was perhaps not quite so psychologically negative, but that this was only a matter of degree.

This conversation led us on to discuss Japanese words such as “naruhodo” (perhaps equal to “indeed”) and “ma-ma” (perhaps the same as “so-so”), which are vague and almost untranslatable into English. We thought that they typified some Japanese attitudes. I recalled the ways in which the late Sir John Pilcher, British ambassador to Japan from 1967-1972, who adored the word “naruhodo,” used to pronounce it with varying emphases to convey the feelings of the moment. We can use the word “indeed” in similar ways but never as effectively as the way Pilcher used “naruhodo”!

How, I asked, did the phrase “shikata ga nai” square with that other typical Japanese call, “gambatte kudasai”? Did this not suggest “keep at it” and “don’t give up”? We agreed that there was a dichotomy here, but that “gambatte” was generally used to urge people to carry out orders and do their best in defined circumstances. Its meanings included the English “keep a stiff upper lip,” i.e., don’t show suffering and stick it out to the end. Student rioters in the ’60s were no doubt urged with such phrases not to give in to outside authority, but the words would hardly be used to encourage individuals to defy the union leadership.

We concluded that the phrase “shikata ga nai” reflected a dangerous fatalism and passivity on the part of many Japanese people who had been educated to accept the inevitable and neither argue with authority nor fight against arbitrary and bureaucratic rules. This attitude was perhaps breaking down among younger people, but even so, many of them, looking at Japan’s inept and often corrupt politicians, were inclined to take the view that there was nothing they could do to change the situation.

There was a general feeling in Japan that while the Liberal Democratic Party might be past praying for, the opposition was not really better. They were disparate and often unconvincing. What was the point of voting out the LDP if the alternative was just as bad?

I understand the feelings of those who take this line, but such attitudes are dangerous for democracy. The results of the next election in Japan should give Japanese parliamentarians a severe jolt and make them face up to the need for fundamental political reforms and pay much more attention to public opinion.

We noted that the problem of apathy caused by disillusionment with politics and politicians was not confined to Japan. Similar signs can be seen in Britain. There will be a problem at the next British general election when it is time to persuade voters that they have a duty to vote in both national and local elections. If they do not bother to vote, then they deserve the politicians they get.

I am glad to see that the established parties in Japan have recently taken some severe knocks in local elections, and I am delighted that there are now two women prefectural governors (Osaka and Chiba). I note that the new governor of Nagano has upset officials by sticking to his opposition to the construction of yet more dams in the prefecture. The dam mania also seems to have received a jolt in Tokushima. Presumably, these dams were designed to provide work for local construction companies. But were they really necessary for the health and welfare of the local population? Would they ever be economically viable? What damage would they do to the local environment? To some backers of construction companies, such questions are not only unanswerable but also unwelcome. Loyalty to party and local leaders is regarded as more important than common sense and the long-term national interest. In my view, the more Japanese ask such questions the better; the more they press their points, the healthier Japanese democracy will become.

The phrase “shikata ga nai” has its uses, but it should not be abused. The “shikata ga nai” mentality needs to be discarded and replaced by a recognition that elections do provide a way of getting rid of the old guard. The task will be finding worthy younger candidates, with a sense of vision, determined to enforce real change in Japanese politics and pursue economic reforms that will meet the needs of Japan as a whole and not just those sections of the population who back the established parties.