Cultura Japonesa

Shikata Ga Nai Meaning, Origin and Philosophy

Mary Smith
By Mary Smith. March 2, 2023
Shikata Ga Nai Meaning, Origin and Philosophy

Although both terms are used loosely, it is common for Western philosophy to look towards Eastern traditions for inspiration. Whether these are rigid schools of philosophical thought or simply an individual's personal outlook on life, some key concepts can help us to make sense of our own existence. This is the case with shikata ga nai, a phrase which is commonly used in Japan, but which can have a variety of meanings. Relating both to events outside our own control and the manner in which we interpret them, this phrase carried significant meaning for many people. However, its interpretation and meaning can vary, depending on the manner in which it is applied.

At oneHOWTO, we discover more about the shikata ga nai meaning, origin and philosophy. In doing so, you might be able to use this concept to bolster your own personal philosophy.

You may also be interested in: What is Kintsugi Philosophy in Pottery?
  1. What is the meaning of shikata ga nai?
  2. Origin of the term Shikata ga nai
  3. Philosophy of the term shikata ga nai

What is the meaning of shikata ga nai?

As well as the alternative shō ga nai, the literal translation of shikata ga nai from the original Japanese is:

it cannot be helped

Or, alternatively:

nothing can be done about it

When taken on face value, this can seem like a purely fatalistic or defeatist approach to life. However, the meaning of shikata ga nai is more nuanced and needs to be considered in the context of Japanese traditions and culture. In doing so, we can see that it is often more dignified and transcendent than purely fatalistic.

When used correctly, the concept of shikata ga nai can be used to resist and overcome suffering. In cases of injustice and violence, we need to do what we can to combat them. However, we also need to protect ourselves from the fights we will never win.

Shikata ga nai uses the concept of acceptance as the first step towards spiritual liberation. A person will never be able to completely get rid of pain and sorrow, but after accepting what has happened, they will allow themselves to continue moving forward and regain something fundamental: the will and the ability to live .

Origin of the term Shikata ga nai

The term shikata ga nai came into frequent use in Japan during World War II. It was most commonly used after the atomic bombings on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was also employed during the internment of many Japanese Americans in the US during the war. More recently, it acquired similar importance after the disaster caused by the earthquake and resultant tsunami of march 11, 2011.

That earthquake caused the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant. Since then, many Western journalists have traveled to northwest Japan to discover how the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident persist. In doing so, they have been trying to narrate how its population manages to gradually move forward with their lives.

When faced with tragedies of such a large scale as an atomic bomb or tsunami, saying ‘it cannot be helped’ can sound callous. However, shikata ga nai has been a helpful tool for many to deal with the pain of loss, as well as the shock of being deprived of the life that existed before events like these happen. It is by looking at how one can move on from such tragedies that we find the true meaning of shikata ga nai.

Shikata Ga Nai Meaning, Origin and Philosophy - Origin of the term Shikata ga nai

Philosophy of the term shikata ga nai

The philosophy of this expression is to understand that things cannot always be under our control. We need to accept this as an incontrovertible fact in order to assimilate events that have happen and move on with our lives. Accepting that you cannot change what we cannot control is an essential step to living in peace and serenity.

Negative connotations of shikata ga nai

Although it is necessary to accept certain situations beyond our control, the concept of shikata ga nai can have negative connotations if used in the wrong way. While shikata ga nai should not be seen as fatalistic, the assumption that some things are out of our hands can be detrimental to our lives. In this way, its use can lead to complacency.

For example, perhaps you have a job and are being treated unfairly by your employers. An attitude of shikata ga nai can result in you accepting unfair work practices and never helping working standards to improve. Similarly, if your romantic partner's behavior is inappropriate towards you, shikata ga nai can lead you to accepting an unhealthy relationship.

Culturally, some people think of shikata ga nai in terms of the negative. If they do not accept cultural norms, they will have more difficulty living their lives in a society with others. Some people may even use shikata ga nai to control others by not providing options or alternatives. Although it is true that contravening cultural norms is difficult and can lead to isolation, it is also the only way a society can progress.

How to use shikata ga nai as a philosophy

In order to avoid the potential negative repercussions of shikata ga nai, we need to make an important distinction. This distinction is between the things we cannot change and those we can.

If we take the example of the bombings during World War II, it is true that the people of Japan could not reverse their situation. They needed to rebuild their lives and accepting loss was a large part of that. However, this does not mean we cannot work to prevent future bombings. This is not a sentiment limited to Japan, but their unique experience with nuclear warfare can be used to help everyone prevent such tragedies in the future.

Similarly, we can use this approach to our work life. Most of us need to work to survive and live our lives to a decent standard. Pretending this is not the case will do us no favors. In this sense, shikata ga nai can be very useful. However, there may be situations where we accept a low salary when we are qualified for more and can find work elsewhere. By choosing to remain in this job, we are being defeatist.

Skikata ga nai is a very useful philosophy when it is used to make improvements in our life. When we put aside anguish and acknowledge the uncertainty of life, we can move forward in a positive direction. In this way it is similar to the Serenity Prayer. This prayer asks for:

  • The serenity to accept what we cannot change
  • The courage to change what we can
  • The wisdom to know the difference

Using shikata ga nai to move forward in this way can be very beneficial. Fighting against the things we cannot change will mean eventual defeat. Improving the things we can change will grant us reward.

Learn more about Japanese philosophical approaches to life with our articles on the meaning of ikigai and the philosophy of Kintsugi in pottery.

If you want to read similar articles to Shikata Ga Nai Meaning, Origin and Philosophy, we recommend you visit our Culture & Society category.

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Shikata Ga Nai Meaning, Origin and Philosophy