Were coming home (but were tidying up first). Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP
As inhabitants of an archipelago that is regularly struck by earthquakes and tsunamis, and
as recent events have tragically demonstrated floods and landslides, it is little wonder that the Japanese have a well-developed sense of fatalism. Any verbal reflection on humans powerlessness to control natures most destructive forces often elicit the phrase shoganai.
The expression, meaning, it cant be helped, is Japans catchall response to any situation, large or small, over which people believe they have no influence. A more voguish translation might be it is what it is. A French person would immediately recognise it as a version of cest la vie.
It could be heard, delivered with deep reflection,
amid the rubble of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and, in resigned tones, after Japans agonising exit from the World Cup in Russia.
Shoganai, and its synonymshikata ga nai, are verbal coping mechanisms that apply equally to unwelcome developments in everyday life, from getting struck in a traffic jam to having to spend Friday evening at the office.
With its roots in the Zen Buddhist belief that suffering is a natural part of life, it could perhaps be described as Japans version of the serenity prayer a personal and communal recognition that, on occasion, passive acceptance of an unfortunate truth is far easier than trying to deny it.
But resigning oneself to ones fate with a muttered shoganai has its drawbacks. Some observers of Japanese culture note that it is too often applied in situations in which humans have more influence than they think.
For much of the seven decades since the end of the second world war, there has been a general acceptance of the dominance of the conservative Liberal Democratic party, even among liberal voters. Some have pointed to its role in allowing the rise of Japanese militarism in the first half of the 20th century.
Shikata ga nai is, then, partly to blame for weaknesses at the heart of Japans democracy, allowing one party to dominate even, as is the case today, when it is
mired in scandal.
In a country with few energy resources of its own, nuclear power was for decades the beneficiary of the shoganai mindset, one that accepted the construction of dozens of nuclear reactors along the coastline as a necessary evil.
Fukushima to prove that Japans lauded sense of fatalism can sometimes be downright dangerous. Justin McCurry in Tokyo
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