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Monday, May 11, 2015

Shouganai: What can you do?

 Shouganai. You don't need to spend much time with a Japanese person to hear this phrase. "There's nothing for it," "It can't be helped," "What can you do?"

Shou (i.e., shō, with a long o) is actually an abbreviation of the word shiyou, which can either mean "way," "method," "means" "resource," "remedy," or "specifications," as of a smartphone or fridge. The first meaning is being referred to here, and the "ga nai" bit simply means "there is none": i.e.   there is no way, no means, no remedy.

Shouganai therefore expresses a sense of resignation, although not necessarily a willing resignation. For example, take the sentence "Aitsu o miru to imaimashikute shouganai."
あいつを見るといまいましくてしょうがない。 "Seeing that guy really gets my hackles up, but what can I do?" The "what can I do?" here powerfully expresses the degree of annoyance and provocation being experienced in that it suggests that doing something about it would entail an action so awful that in the long run it wouldn't be worth it.

The speaker is very much stating that any drastic remedy lies beyond the pale, is entirely impractical, and therefore that gritting one's teeth and plodding on is all that can be done.

Whether shouganai is something the Japanese consciously use against each other in order to take liberties is arguable. However, shouganai definitely lets people get away with aggravating examples of behavior.

For example, no Japanese person I know likes the noisy electioneering cars and vans that wend the streets every few months frenetically jabbering for votes at hugely amplified volume. And even less are sympathetic to the right-wing trucks that aggressively blare martial music through cities and harangue shopping crowds outside stations at even higher volume.

Yet, the thinking goes, for example, that Japan's a democracy, everyone must have their say, these people have invested a lot in what they're doing and are rousing people to have their political say, or that these other poeple have grievances that must be aired--"better expressed in violent words than in violent actions," etc. etc. So, irksome, even painful, as it all might be, "what can you do?"--"Yakamashii kedo, shouganai." ("It's a racket, but what can you do?")

The wind's high, capt'n, the seas are rough
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai
Kenji got Naoko up the duff
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai

I'm pooped, I can't work a single hour more
I feel like I'm going to die.
The Katos are rich, so why are we poor?
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai

That new Chinese airfield sprung up from the sea
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai
Kim Jong-un's new missiles are aimed right at me
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai

And now who's on hand to help but the Yanks?
(Who just years back gave us a black eye)
"America, please." "America, thanks."
Shou ga nai'n dayo, shou ga nai

More about the Japanese language

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