Shouganai: What Can You Do?

When going to another country, there are various factors to consider such as the culture of that country. Certain adjustments would have to be made in order to be able to adapt to the culture of that country. Aside from the culture, one would also have to learn common expressions that the locals say, depending on how long one would be staying in that country. Specifically, in Japan, the common folk has various day-to-day expressions that tourists and visitors might here from Japanese friends or relatives. It may be confusing for foreign visitors as some of these expressions may not be found in the typical Japanese translation dictionaries. One of these common Japanese expressions is “shouganai.”

Translation to the Japanese Words “Shouganai”

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A commonly used phrase in the Land of the Sun, the philosophy behind the Japanese expression “shouganai” runs deep. In actual, shouganai is only a shortened version of the Japanese saying “shiyou ga nai.” This saying can also be used interchangeably with another Japanese expression “shikata ga nai.” Both sayings have the same meaning and intent. The general meaning of this saying is “it cannot be helped” or “nothing can be done.”

The expression “shouganai” can be broken down into two words, namely, “shou” and “ga nai.”  The term “shou,” read with a long o, is just an abbreviation of the term “shiyou,” which translates to “way” or “method” in English. It can also be translated to “means, “remedy,” “resource,” or “specifications.” Specifically for this saying, the meaning of “shou” being referred to is “way.” On the other hand, the words “ga nai” translates to “there is none.” Hence, the words just mean, “there is no way” or “there is no remedy.”

Saying “shouganai” basically shows a sense of resignation. While it does necessarily mean that one is giving up, it just means that one can no longer do something regarding a certain matter. An example is the sentence, “Aitsu o miru to imaimashikute shouganai.” In Japanese, this is written as “あいつを見るといまいましくてしょうがない。” In English, this translates to, “Seeing that guy really gets my hackles up, but what can I do?" The "what can I do?”

The statement in itself is full of strong emotions. However, the saying “shouganai” expresses a sense of resignation. While the emotion is strong there, the sense of the sentence indicates that doing something more about this would be for moot. It is like saying, doing something more about the matter will be for naught. Hence, doing something more about it really would not make any difference.

Grammar Check: Examples on How to Use Shouganai in a Sentence

The Japanese expression “shouganai” is usually just used at the end of the sentence. This emphasizes the exasperation or resignation of the person after issuing a statement. There are certain situations wherein it is okay use the expression “shouganai.” For example, if a person was supposed to attend a party but something more important came up, the expression “shouganai” is apt.

Trivial matters such as not being able to shop because does not have a budget can utilize the phrase “shouganai” in a sentence. Something that cannot really be helped such as wrinkles on the face can also use the phrase “shouganai.” However, one cannot use the phrase “shouganai” when pertaining to a catastrophic event such as a major earthquake or the death of another person, as this would only come off as rude. Serious situations such as this do not merit such light expressions such as “shouganai.”

Another translation to the expression “shouganai” is “that is just the way it is.” There are also levels in stating the expression “shouganai.” For a more casual tone, the phrase is just “shouganai.” However, for the polite counterpart of this expression, one can say “shikatanai.” If one is going for an extremely polite tone, one can use “itashikatanai.” This Japanese expression also suggests how the Japanese people are able to accept that some things are just the way they are. Hence, the Japanese are more able to adjust and adopt to the surroundings and situations that they may find themselves in.

Another example of a Japanese sentence with this expression is “Itaku te itaku te naki taku te shouga nai.” This translates to “I am hurt, I really want to cry (but what can I do?).” If one got a failing mark in a test, one can say, “Warui ten o totte, kanashiku te shouga nai.” This translates to “I got a bad mark, so I was very sad (it can’t be helped).”

Cultural Associations and Literary References of this Expression

Many say that this Japanese expression can be associated with the Japanese people being able to maintain their dignity despite the challenges that they face in life. Specifically, when such matters are beyond their control, this saying shows how they remain unwavering when faced with adversities. The Japanese expression of “shouganai” is somehow similar to the point of the French saying “c’est la vie.”

While the saying often pertains to positive connotations, others may perceive this expression as negative. The sense of resignation that this saying expresses sometimes may make some people feel as if the speaker of the saying has become lazy to actually do something about a certain matter. Either that or the speaker offers a lack of reaction to the matter. Another impression of this saying is that one has already given up caring about a specific matter.

Some people from the West may find this expression as if the Japanese people have given up on certain matters. However, this expression does not necessarily mean that the Japanese people have ceased to care about a certain matter. It is just the realization and acceptance that certain matters and situation are beyond one’s control. Instead of mulling over a certain situation that they have no control over, the best way to face this challenge or obstacle is to adapt to the situation.

References regarding this expression have also been made in Japanese literature. In fact, this phrase seems to have become a vital theme in a variety of books that talk about certain major events that occurred throughout the history of Japan. An example of this is a chapter written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston in the book entitled Farewell to Mazanar. This chapter explains why, in part, the Japanese American interns in the US during the Second World War did not put up much of a fight against the restrictions that they had to put up with.

The phrase “shikataganai” was also seen often used by several citizens in Hiroshima, as depicted in the historical manga entitled Barefoot Gen. This expression was used pertaining to the acceptance by the Japanese people of the military rule as well as the below-poverty conditions that they had to live through, which caused many of the common folks to starve. Certain books also either introduced or explained this expression, such as the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, and Shogun by James Clavell.

Aside from literature, the expression “shouganai” has also been incorporated into art, particularly music. King Crimson sang a song entitled “Shoganai,” which was included in the mini album entitled “Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With.” This album was released in the year 2002. Another track referring to this phrase was entitled “Shikata Ga Nai.” This song was sung by Van der Graaf Generator in this album “Do Not Disturb,” which was released in the year 2016.

Other Japanese Expressions/Words to Know

There are many other Japanese phrases that one can learn about if one would be staying in Japan for a long period of time. One of these phrases is “gaman.” The meaning of this phrase is “to restrain” or “to hold back.” This characteristic is quite evident in the everyday life of the Japanese. This phrase may pertain to holding back when one is tempted to talk back to one’s supervisors or superiors. Despite wanting to give in and just answer back, one cannot just do so as the Japanese work culture does not allow it.

“Gaman” may also be used to pertain to waiting in long lines and to being forced to squeeze with a lot of people into a full train during rush hour. It can also refer to having to work overtime without pay, which is apparent in some companies in Japan. While these moments can make one feel exasperated and lose one’s patience, one must just take a deep breath and gaman. Somehow, many may liken this expression to “shouganai.”

Another local expression that one might be interested to learn is “bimyou.” There really is no direct translation to this expression. This Japanese expression may mean “not bad.” However, it also does not mean that something is good. The meaning falls somewhere in the middle of good and bad. When something might have been okay but not exactly good. An example would be if someone asks if a movie was good or bad. Answering with the expression “bimyou” would mean that the movie was nothing special or just so-so.

By Jakob Montrasio from Saarbrücken, Germany (Cheers!) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A more popular Japanese expression is “kanpai!” This is the Japanese alternative to the expression “cheers!” This is commonly said or exclaimed by people when clinking their glasses of beer together prior to taking a drink. It is also usually said when drinking for a celebration. Because drinking is quite typical in Japan for business relations, it is important to know about this expression and to follow tradition when drinking with the Japanese. This phrase is commonly heard in a lot of bars in Tokyo.

If one would be eating out in Japan, among the choices of restaurants are all-you-can-eat restaurants. The expression said for this kind of restaurants is “tabehoudai.” A drinking version of this is “nomihoudai.” Knowing these two may be useful for people who would be eating out with Japanese people who are quite adventurous with food and drinks. Especially useful when going out in groups, it would be best to be aware what one’s stomach is getting into when eating out.

When one hears of the word “nanpa,” the translation of this is to flirt with someone. This usually refers to men who approach women on the street to get a date. “Bad boys” are usually the ones who attempt to ask a girl out or get her mobile number on the street. This is not exactly a common thing to do, as the Japanese are not usually upfront with these things. On the other hand, “reverse nanpa” refers to the girls who do the same thing with men. This action is more subtle and usually also prove to be a success compared to “nanpa.”

There are, of course, a list of a lot more Japanese expressions that one may learn in order to fully immerse one’s self in the Japanese language, society, and culture. There are certain expressions that are typically used by the younger generation while there are others that are more commonly used by older Japanese. The important thing in this scenario is to learn as much as possible, especially for people who would be settling in the Japanese daily life.

These expressions are not merely just something that the Japanese thought would be nice to hear. These Japanese expressions reflect the identity, as well as the culture, of the Japanese people. With the expression “shouganai,” it reflects the undying patience, as well as the flexibility, of the Japanese people to adapt to different kinds of situations. It also shows the resiliency of the Japanese people when faced with various challenges and adversities in their lives.