By Kevin Stoda, East Asia

ABSTRACT: This is an article of cross-cultural comparison and contrast. It focuses on Japan, Taiwan, France, Germany, the USA, and the Arab world—all places I have worked in and lived in over the past 3 decades. The focus of comparison is on the concepts of “learned helplessness”. I begin by looking at the Japanese concept of “Shoganai”.

Shoganai is a Japanese word that literally means “there is no way of doing, it can’t be helped – nothing can be done”. It is [an] interesting word, because it shows the culture of restraint in Japan – people should not complain. Indeed, complaining in Japan has been always kind of a taboo. Complaining is a sign of weakness. Relative word to shoganai is gaman, which means something like “Be patient”.http://www.hanamiweb.com/shoganai.html
I then look at the usage of similar ideas and phrases in North America, Europe and the Middle East—before completing the global circle and looking at Taiwan today.

JAPAN: “Shoganai”

Barry Eisler, the independent film producer, has written down his own definition explaining the Japanese concept of “Shoganai”. He claims it is one of those concepts which are essential to the Japanese character and the country the Japanes have lived in for millenia. Eisler wrote, “[Concerning Japan] … perhaps the culture of restraint [in Japan] reveals itself most pervasively in the phrase shoganai — literally, there is no way of doing, or nothing can be done.”Indeed, while I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, the phrase “shoganai” and it’s verb form, “shikatta ganai” were pervasive and hearing them spoken so often taught me quite a bit about the world view of many Japanese—a world view, which I had thought (at the time) to be at odds with both (a) my own society’s (the USA) view of the world and (b) my defined role as an educator and teacher of language & culture in Japanese public schools.
In his writing, Eisler detailed the toughening and educational approach of some schools in Japan (just like here in Taiwan) whereby many schools treat children a bit harshly in the winter months. That is, even in cooler climates, schools often provide no heater or a poor excuse for a heater in the cold Japanese elementary and secondary classrooms in winter. This teaches the shivering students both the concept of “gaman”, which literally to persevere, while also teaching the youth of Japanese society a sort of important-learned-helplessness about the state of life on this planet for we (mere) human beings—namely: “We cannot always control everything. We cannot always control our way of living.”
Is there anything nobel in Shoganai attitudes. I believe that Eisler believes so. However, Linda Lowen, a third generation Japanese-American has written of 2011 Japanese in the face of the most recent Tsunami and earthquake disasters, “Much is being made of the stoicism of the Japanese. The voiceovers of interpreters are slow, halting, unemotional as they translate clips from Japan’s public broadcasting network NHK. The NHK reports of survivors’ stories feel very neutral and detached compared to CNN’s viewer-generated i-Reports from Americans in Japan which frequently contain bleeped-out curse words. If the Japanese indicate distress, it’s mostly through wordless cries of “aaaah.” No repetitive swearing or excitement bordering on schadenfreude as was exemplified by one video taken by an American college student studying in Japan; he ran towards an oil refinery explosion with a video camera and emailed his clip to CNN which provided him his 15 minutes of fame.”
Lowen concludes, “This isn’t the sort of thing the majority of Japanese citizens would do. And anyone who’s spent time among the Japanese people can understand why.” She adds, “We see subdued women and men on-camera talk about being swept away in the tsunami, husbands and wives and children torn from their grasp by the floodwaters, yet there’s no wild sobbing, no falling apart, no letting go. American reporters have been speculating as to when the Japanese will finally break and openly grieve, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. This is how the Japanese survive. Although I myself am far from stoic, I grew up surrounded by examples of this particular Japanese virtue.”

FRANCE: C’est la vie

Eisler went on to explain, “Shoganai is the equivalent of c’est la vie, but with an important difference: where c’est la vie and its foreign variants focus on external circumstances, shoganai focuses on the inability of the actor to change those circumstances. The person is restrained, but the restraint has an element of self-imposition, indeed, arguably, of learned helplessness. Perhaps this is not a surprise: at the same time those shivering [small and societally powerless] school children are developing gaman, they must [certainly] be watching the warmly dressed adults around them and concluding that ‘what can you do?’ is not an inappropriate response to life.”
Naturally, by Eisler’s quote or translation of “What can one do?” (as a manifestation of Shoganai or “it cannot be helped” in Japanese) Eisler implies that “c’est la vie and its foreign variants” along with “Shoganai” are in many ways two sides of the same coin.
On the one hand, I find, Eisler’s translations of “Shoganai” to be inappropriate because, as an American educator of the last quarter of a century, he implies that “shoganai” is a favorable way for a man to know his limits, i.e. by translating the phrase into the French “C’est la vie”—or “Such is life”. In contrast to what Eisler implies, for French philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, [a man experiences one’s] “freedom as a curse. ‘man is condemned to be free’- condemned because he has not created himself -and is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world , he is responsible for everything that he does.” In short, all around the globe, modern forms of stoicism are not the old stoicism—from which even the “shoganai” tradition and identity and Japan have arrived from. Moreover, it is questionable whether 70 years after the War in the Pacific, whether modern “Shoganai” traditions in Japan are the same now as they were over 4 or 5 generations ago. I, for one, have noted a shift towards pampering children in Japan. Moreover, even while I worked in Japan nearly 20 years ago already, I had observed a shift to adding more and more heaters to the classroom and a shift away from “not requiring students to wear short pants” or skirts to school on cold days.
Likewise, positivism in France in the 21st century is not the logical positivism of 2 centuries ago—and later enamored bureaucrats and Ivy League presidents for the last century. Positivism has been transformed in the post-war and post-colonial era France under pressures of relativist, socialist, and existential thinkers and reality-on-the-ground, i.e. as a nation had to pick up the pieces of the disaster of applying 19th Century positivist strategies in leading to and carrying out WWI and collaborating with Germany in WWII.

THE U.S.A. : Stoicism (Positivism)It was such a both a positivist and a stoic world-view that Americans of the 19th century were often immersed in. For example, in both the 19th and 20th century Thomas Alva Edison told his friends and followers, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
This was a form of positivism to be sure, but it was positivism that called for hard work and serious analyses of our state of existence and application of better forms of education and research here on earth. Edison’s philosophy was not a run-away stoicism, i.e. out to destroy American identity dating to the founding fathers. Rather, it was a positivism with a more responsible and partial existential twist that Edison was offering up to would-be adherents, developers, dreamers, and scientists. (In short, it was not Horatio Algiers tale that Edison called for. Neither was it a call to carry on following an ignorant man’s path—i.e. fighting our parents wars generation after generation. On the other hand, Edison might have had some fascist tendencies which were common in that same era.)
Many Americans have thought similarly to Edison over the centuries. This “we can do it—if we have a will—we will find a way” worldview was also what I grew up thinking was a possible for me, my generation and my world—let us say 3, 4 or 5 decades ago. In other words, I was raised in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s to believe that of there would always be a world of possibilities for my generation—as long as we kept ourselves from blowing up the world first. But even then, we had a choice to act or to refrain from taking the bull (or life) by-the-horns.
Note that this belief in “we can do it” resurfaced recently in the Barack Obama campaign slogan of 2008; “Yes, we can.” However, it has since been taken over once again by patriotic stoicism, which lacks thoughtful historical, social and political-economic analyses and common sense, which Edison demanded in his day–and which we should demand in this 21st Century, too.
Over the most recent three decades of my observing my own society, i.e. the USA (mostly from abroad but also while living there), I have come to understand that there is a stoicism related to learned helplessness that is currently far-too-deeply-ingrained in modern America. This learned helplessness was what Thomas Dewey and other great educators have warned Americans about when they have become to proud of stoic tradition or too-enamored by positivist rhetoric (i.e. the kind that leads to fascism and other very nasty ‘isms”), which is every bit as vibrant and active in North America as it has been in Japan under the metaphorical world view of “shoganai”—or a pervasive “such is life” attitude. Worse still, American form of “shoganai” is embedded in the worst sort of self-destructive stoicism which once led Japanese soldiers in WWII to fight to the bitter end on island-after-island, even though their cause and war were obviously hopelessly lost.
Meanwhile, America in 2011-2012 is a country that continually trains too many of its young people to go off and fight endless foreign wars –and join the military to pay off outrageous university debts and help out bottomless pits of petroleum firms and defense contractors (siphoning off our savings as well as expunging the lives along with the ways of life which might have otherwise been provided by the best-and-the-brightest generation of young people which are stuck in American forms of “shoganai” ). In short, there is a certain form of American stoicism which is taught by society–and by thoughtless parents and ruthless politicians–to the USA offspring—and this has been going on each generation since WWII.
This is war-hungry “stoicism’ is every bit as strong and destructive as the “stoicism” the Japanese have savored for centuries, i.e. under the ingrained notions of “shoganai”. Please recall here that “[t]he word stoic has remained in the [English] language [for at least a millennium] and defines a person who accepts life’s slings and arrows without whining about it.” It is similar to shoganai and remains part-and-parcel of American identity and philosophy today—even though many of us were raised to think it cannot happen here—in our free thinking, democratic, and freedom seeking land. As a lifelong educator, I am starting my 4th decade of fighting this very “really Unamerican” stoicism. This stoicism has continuously created more and more learned helplessness—all of my adult life—in America and in other corners of the globe [which I will refer to in Part 2 of this writing].
Over the years, I have been reading constantly that stoicism is what “real Americans” in the 21st Century continue to inaccurately claim has been the fabric of American society since the times of our Founding Fathers. Nonsense, such stoicism has, in fact only been dominantly functioning in the USA in its current military-industrial-complex-committed form for approximately 70 years, i.e. since the Hitler and WWII era..
Read the following example of a supposed-American-Patriot blog–as we continue to march into this new century! E.g. this particular stoic American patriot writes, “We desperately need a big dose of American stoicism … don’t you think?”
He continues, “It is a real shame that fear of the violence perpetrated by Islamic radicals can so easily cause some Americans to drop their principles and to ‘cut and run’ … forgetting the causes of liberty and freedom many past Americans selflessly fought and died for.”
Moreover, this same American stoic continues (ad nauseam), “Our liberal/socialist friends try to impress our more gullible American citizens … [i.e.] sounding so sophisticated and intelligent when they wax philosophically about our Islamic brothers and sisters, or …. our gay brothers and sisters, or … about how men should be ‘nice guys shouldn’t be so masculine … and wouldn’t it be just so much better if we were all so ‘metro-sexual.’” [Here, I originally assumed by ‘metro-sexual’ that this patriotic American stoic implies “multicultural”, i.e. the educational field which is my speicalty—but in actuality, the so-called patriot was playing PC –conservatives play the PC game too– game of misleading the reader with his anti-homosexual jargon.]
In short, while the signs of the times around us call Americans back from the brink of the worst forms of overt stoicism fascist-oriented postivism, the country [the USA], as a whole, is not “looking [busily y]for alternative ideologies with which to equip ourselves more adequately for hard times.” Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book, Bright-Sided, offered “a damning indictment of the [particular] ideology of positive thinking, which she sees as the fundamental flaw in American life.”
Ehrenreich “suggests that the problem of relentless positive thinking, and the corresponding refusal to acknowledge reality, is largely responsible for all kinds of social ills, including our current financial mess. She argues that only if we begin to recognize hard facts–such as the presence in our society of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and debt, as well as cancers that can kill us no matter how much pink we wear–will we get sufficiently angry about these things to fight for a cure.” I am not sure weather Ehrenbach is referring to the ideologies of theKoch Brothers (or there evolved sense of John Birch Society Doctrine), but in any case, any sort of positivism or stoicism forces in the USA which lead Americans and their society/government to appropriate Japanese-style “shoganai” identities (or out-of-control stoicism as a national sense of identity) in this new millennium needs to be hijacked and kicked out of the country.

NOTE: In Part 2 of this piece I will look at this doctrine of “shoganai” (or misguided and illogical stoic ideology) and how it plays a role currently in some parts of Europe and the Middle East (still) in the 21st Century.


About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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6 Responses to I NEVER CAN SAY “GOOD-BYE” to SHOGANAI (After all)–Part 1

  1. eslkevin says:

    Of course we need a positive attitude and a stoic approach to life at times, but it needs to be mixed with study, research, planning, reflection, learning, relearning, taking time out, listening to others, and working through things to achieve an authentic maturity.

  2. eslkevin says:


    Learning such expressions is key not only to picking up the local language, but also to grasping different belief systems and ways of seeing the world.

    Think of these expressions as ways to get inside of a particular worldview, and to show the locals that you’ve got an awareness of their cultural values.

    Japan photo by tiseb
    1. Shoganai (しょうがない), Japan

    “It can’t be helped.” Japan is for the most part a very non-confrontational culture. Shoganai epitomizes this tendency because by encouraging people not to complain or try to “fight the power”.

    Circumstances can’t be changed, so why get angry or try to avoid the unavoidable?

    It’s too hot and you have walk 10 km to the nearest train station? Your boss asks you to work an extra four hours that evening?

    Just accept it and move on: shoganai.

    2. Mai pen rai (ไม่เป็นไร), Thailand

    Thailand photo by mckaysavage
    “Thailand is where no matter what happens, you say ‘mai pen rai.’ Never mind. Que sera, sera. Water off my back. And get on with your life.”

    – Jerry Hopkins, Thailand Confidential

    Whereas in Japan this “never mind” idea encourages one to endure hardships, in Thailand, it implies that life should be lived at a relaxed pace.

    This could not be more evident in the idea of “Thai time”: several days late for a gathering of friends? Mai pen rai; it’s no big deal, we can always put things off for another day, a week, a month.

    3. Sempre tem jeito, Brazil

    “…there’s always a way. Don’t drive yourself crazy over stuff now, there’s always a way to work it out in the end.”

    – Thomas Kohstamm, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

    4. Pura vida, Costa Rica

    Costa Rica photo by lulumon athletica
    If you’ve been reading up on the exploits of one frozen banana stand owner, you should understand the idea of enjoying life in leisurely manner in Costa Rica, pura vida!

    Literally meaning “pure life”, the saying is often used as a handy catch phrase and a way of offering greetings and farewells.

    5. C’est la vie, France

    Apparently the French and Japanese think very much alike in this respect. C’est la vie is often used to describe situations beyond someone’s control in a way of saying “that’s life” or “what can you do?”

    6. Insha’allah, Arab nations

    “In Egypt, it is an expression that is relied on so utterly, repeated so continually and universally – invoked on the quiet, dusty paths of rural villages and on the crowded streets of Cairo alike – that it is a part of our national character.

    For Egyptian Muslims (and many Christians, too), insha’allah is the constant reminder that human beings are not in control. It is funny, but also somewhat telling, that most foreigners and visitors to Egypt believe it means ‘never.’”

    – Jehan Sadat, My Hope for Peace

    7. No worries, Australia and New Zealand

    Although the phrase “sweet as” might be just as strong a contender in Kiwi territory, no worries is probably the most culturally relevant phrase in Australia and New Zealand.

    The saying expresses a laid-back approach to life. No worries, mate.

    8. Huevos, Mexico

    Our own Sarah Menkedick offers her experience in Mexico with the variations on huevos (eggs):

    “Que hueva.”

    Imagine you are Jorge, it is Sunday morning, and you are snug in bed with the sun pouring down on you. Then your peppy girlfriend and her German Shepherd come racing into the room, jump on the bed, and shout/bark “Come running with me!!”

    Your response would be: “Que hueva.”

    Huevo photo by bpheonix
    In case the context didn’t help, “hueva” here means something like boring/tedious/dull/dreadful. You could also translate it more or less directly as “how laziness-inducing.”

    “Que huevon/huevona.” This is that guy with his arm elbow-deep in the Ruffles and his gut pouring over the edge of his jeans who shouts “yeah, I’ll get around to it later honey, I’m watching the Simpsons!” The Lazy Egg.

    Huevona is the feminine form.

    This is what you try to pull on your friends when they refuse to walk the dog with you or trek it across town to catch a bus to see a movie.

    “Que huevon!” you say with mock indignation. It rarely works, but it’s fun to call someone a lazy egg anyway.

    – Huevos a la Mexicana

    9. Maningue Nice, Mozambique

    Mozambique photo by JenvanW
    A cross between a purely national term and a flair of English, maningue nice means “very nice” and is the closest thing to a slogan in Mozambique. Scream it from the tallest buildings whenever fortune favors you.

    10. Bahala Na, Philippines

    Come What May.

    “This is the term that is very often used when all else fails, when you have done all you could, it doesn’t matter
    because fate will take over. Sort of a comfort in a sense, that wills the Filipino, that gives them a sort of perseverance.”

    Source: tingog.com

    A Cross Cultural Theme

    When I started researching these expressions, I was expecting to find similarities based on geography: patterns in Asia, South America, Western Europe, etc.

    I was surprised, however, to find a cross-cultural theme; many of these phrases are used in response to circumstances beyond people’s control.

    How each culture is epitomized in these terms is indicative of how they react to unfortunate or unavoidable events.

    The Japanese and French suck it up; the Thais, Kiwis, Aussies, and others shrug it off; Arabs put the responsibility to a higher power.

  3. Pingback: Are Americans becoming more Japanese? More Middle Eastern? Less like the founding fathers had in mind? « Eslkevin's Blog

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