Shō ga nai for the modern man

Controversy springs from the oddest places. It springs from the most inopportune places.

In 2021, what is archaic Japanese philosophy if not odd and inopportune? Thus, quibbling.

An adage I’m fond of, shō ga nai, is particularly Japanese.

The translation, literally (as possible, given the meta-nuances and intonational schisms inherent to language’s shaping of the personality):

Shikata ga nai (仕方がない), pronounced [ɕi̥kata ɡa naꜜi], 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 naꜜi] is an alternative.

(Shō ga nai is the saying I’m accustomed to and which I will refer to in this post).

I don’t know Japanese so I’m unable to authoritatively assert what aspect of “the Japanese mind” is illustrated in the construct of these words. The English (Westernized) notion and interpretation distills a translation that is fatalistic and helpless. Lacking the Judeo-Christian sense of self-steering bravado and its external locus of control, the words are nevertheless far from the spirit of surrender we would presume they infer to our Western mentality.

And this is one source of “controversy.” The Western deconstruction and relentless dissection of Shō ga nai in this article demotes a fantastically simple thought into a twisted maze of inference which diminishes its ascetic character.

This is clearly apparent in the opening paragraphs.

“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.”

The dichotomy is portrayed by the ambivalent author. The first example (his) is truer to the spirit of “it can’t be helped” as an applied definition. These words define, descend from, a precursor state of reality as it exists, a priori, beyond our conscious discernment of their genesis.

The dispute as to the meaning of this phrase is wrought with interpretations soaked in agenda. I damn the Western perspective here, but the incoherence we witness when we tease out the essence of Shō ga nai apparently does not necessarily avoid plaguing the modern Japanese mind, either.

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.

I see now that Shō ga nai, in 2021, reveals less about the Eastern versus Western schism and more about the Modern versus Antiquity schism. The modern Japanese don’t see it, modern Westerners surely don’t. As the writer’s friend misleadingly pointed out, “Her objection was to the use of the phrase “shikata ga nai” in circumstances when it was in fact possible to do something.” She’s correct, but one must not use Shō ga nai to describe conscious unresolved human situations. The spirit of the word defines a deeper underlying immutability of that force which brought us to this space-time, the one which created the environment we merely exist in.

Those cannot be helped.

Her suggested translations of “I can’t be bothered” or “we just have to accept” are heretical misnomers. Shō ga nai is simple and singular. The sparseness of its concept leaves no room for reduction. The literal interpretation, “it can’t be helped,” is all. To presume you can shape the words slightly to suit your own modern agenda is to contaminate their aesthetic.

The article, and most of its cast, are myopic people wrapped up in the contingencies of politics to unleash their vision and behold Shō ga nai for what it beautifully represents: the timeless triviality of the human condition. It does not concern itself with politicians or red traffic lights; we, as limited people with limited vision, do that for the word, ourselves. The example of using the word to describe coming upon a red light approaches the essence of the word but universally, it misses the mark. If we wished, we could blow through the red light. It is a theoretical option. The human condition of the driver is not intrinsically barriered by the red light, only by his interpretation of the cultural artifact should he not abide by the symbolic and artificial ramification of disregarding laws.

This is not Shō ga nai.

A priori

Shō ga nai surpasses earthly self-inflicted boundaries of that we “can” or “cannot” or “should” do. Despite its esoteric grounding, it does have pragmatic applications in our lives for we are all faced with situations that are beyond our control, especially those which have occurred already. The words are useful to describe such situations that confront us in which any external influence is impossible. Acceptance that our irreversible situation, represented by the machinations of fate and circumstance, approaches the deeper state of existential Shō ga nai.

There is nothing powerless or hopeless in such recognition. Doing so is empowering, it is not a source of weakness or despondency. True weakness resides in our inability to recognize constraint.

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