"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.