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It Can't Be Helped

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"It's very regrettable that nuclear bombs were dropped, and I feel sorry for the citizens of Hiroshima, but it couldn't be helped because that happened in wartime."
The Japanese Emperor Hirohito delivering perhaps the most famous use of the phrase during a press conference in 1975

One of the many Japanese Stock Phrases, even to the point of extreme Memetic Mutation.

Phrased either informally as "しょうがない" ("shō ga nai") or formally as "仕方がない" ("shikata ga nai"). Similar to the French phrase "C'est la vie" ("Such is life") and its rough English equivalents (e.g. "Shit happens", "You can't win", "It is what it is", "You Can't Fight Fate," "That's the way the cookie crumbles," "That's life,"), this phrase can be translated as simply weathering troubles and accepting that life can be harsh, but actually has a deeper definition to it.

One attribute highly prized in Japanese society is that of "gaman", or "endurance". Gaman is the quality of enduring what seems unbearable with dignity and grace. The idea basically is that if there's something unpleasant around you, it's better to tough it out in an act of self-sacrifice rather than act immediately to change it. It's similar to Calvin's dad's belief in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes that Misery Builds Character.

This is the source of many instances of Values Dissonance in imported/translated Japanese works. Americans, to put it politely, are very familiar with complaining — the nation was founded on a rebellion, and free speech the ability to speak one's mind is highly valued and constantly taught. A key part of America's self identity is that it is populated with people who acted to make a better life for themselves rather than accept what they had. The Japanese, however, will have a Salaryman suffer in silence when his boss demands more hours and his wife screams at him because of a miscarriage, or a mother suffer in silence as she keeps her husband's affair with the neighbor a secret while the child asks where Daddy is, or parents quietly enable their Hikikomori adult child rather than kick him out, stop doing things for him, or demand that he get a job. To Westerners, this would be denounced as fatalism, the trait of Apathetic Citizens.

On the brighter side, it can be used in the sense of not sweating the small stuff; having "gaman" would mean you don't get upset over the little irritations in life. If someone bumps in to you, maybe the other person is a bit clumsy or tripped a little. If the food arrives fifteen minutes late, maybe the delivery person got lost or is on his first day. If a friend makes a light-hearted joke at your expense, you find the humor in it and laugh along with it.

Because it can be interpreted as a fatalistic unwillingness to make changes or an enlightened acceptance of the ups and downs of life, "sho ga nai" can change its meaning depending on how serious the circumstances surrounding the phrase can be.

Those interested in linguistics may want to compare this to the Russian word nicho (ничо), which literally translates to 'nothing' but is more often used as meaning 'there's nothing to be done about it." It has connotations of futility or extreme fatalism (but depending on context, it can also mean nonchalant dismissal as in 'nothing happened, really') and also bears some resemblance to the American English saying "Shit happens", although that has more swearing. A Mexican version of this is named Ni modo (roughly translated as No way (to do this)), but it carries more negative connotations than their Japanese and Russian counterparts, due to the severe Values Dissonance not only between Mexico and the U.S. but also between other regions of the country. The Portuguese saying Fazer o que? ("What can I do?") and the Filipino saying Wala kang magagawa ("You can do Nothing") have a pretty similar meaning, even carrying the negative connotations of their Japanese counterpart. Hungarian has a similar one to Ez van, literally meaning 'it is what exists', this phrase interprets the thing one can't do anything about as some kind of force of nature. On one hand it can be interpreted as quite pessimistic/fatalistic, but some use it as an excuse. In a somewhat characteristic twist, Hebrew ma laasot? ("what can be done?") is sometimes practically interpreted as actual invitation to think up what can be done.

A characteristic of the Yamato Nadeshiko. For the Western/philosophical equivalent, see Stoicism. Compare Stiff Upper Lip: endure all the terrible things that life would give you, but at least make fun of it. Compare and contrast Japanese Spirit, The Fatalist, Angst? What Angst?.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In the first episode of Mononoke, the elderly innkeeper gets tired of arguing with the pregnant foreigner over how there's no room in the inn. She just gives up, says it can't be helped, and lets her sleep in the abandoned room in the attic.
  • Used very frequently by Madara in Natsume's Book of Friends.
  • In the historical manga Barefoot Gen, many of the citizens in Hiroshima use the phrase to explain why they accept the military rule, and the acceptance of the below-poverty conditions that cause many of their citizens to starve.
  • Used incredibly frequently in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei.
  • Used in Skyhigh after the schoolgirl Kino-shita kills herself because she knows she'll be able to kill the Alpha Bitch at her school, and she realizes that her friend she left behind is overjoyed in her death and then wishes she hadn't decided to drown herself. Izuko simply tells her that's it's too late and it can't be helped, so she might as well just go to heaven without going through with the killing.
  • Suki na Mono wa Suki Dakara Shouganai, an incredibly melodramatic Boys' Love manga, translated as "I Love Who I Love, So It Can't Be Helped''.
  • At the end of CLANNAD episode 24 (Kyou Chapter), Kyou cancels a date with Tomoya because her sister wants to go shopping. He shrugs it off with "shikata ga nai", unselfishly.
  • Holland uses the phrase in Eureka Seven... to explain why the Gekkostate absolutely has to play a game of soccer before going to save the world. It pops up on at least one other occasion as well.
  • Holon from Real Drive uses the phrase in reference to other androids of her model and type being used for sexual intercourse.
  • Used in Digimon Adventure 02 when Miyako and Iori are faced with having to kill Digimon after they had spent the series not having digital blood on their hands until then. This particularly hits hard for Iori, whose late father was a police officer.
  • Frequently used to describe Chise and her situation in Sai Kano.
  • In Persona 4: The Animation, Yukiko's buried resentment of Chie for not being able to save her from being trapped in her role at her family's inn is highlighted by Chie's careless comment that Yukiko will inherit the Amagi Inn and "it can't be helped." This prompts Shadow Yukiko to reject Chie as her "prince."
  • Used by Homura at the end of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, referring to the need to continue fighting monsters for the foreseeable future. But she says this after Madoka decided that tricking young girls into becoming demonic beings was unacceptable, and manipulated the system to make it more reasonable. And that was only possible because Homura wanted to uphold the promise she made with Madoka in a previous timeline to prevent Madoka's death/bewitching and worked relentlessly to undo it. So it is, in a sense, a subversion.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, this is the gist of Mrs. Noventa's letter to Heero after he accidentally killed her husband, and has been seeking out members of the Noventa family to offer them the chance to kill him for revenge. She tells him not to beat himself up, that these things happen in times of war, and that the best thing he can do is to live his life. Not too many widows in Western media would have written a letter like that to someone they knew was responsible for their husband's untimely death.

    Fan Works 
  • In Farce Contact, a Star Trek: Enterprise Parody Fic, Captain Archer is being criticized by the Vulcan ambassador and responds thus:
    "When I was in my early twenties on a trip to East Africa I saw a gazelle giving birth,' he said. 'It was truly amazing. Within minutes the baby was standing up on its own. A few more minutes and it was walking and before I knew it, it was being stuffed down the throat of a hungry lion. The moral of this story is that shit happens, and Ambassador Pointy had better get used to it!"

    Films — Animation 
  • In Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the Spider-Society as a whole, especially Miguel but minus Hobie and later Gwen, firmly believe that The Stations of the Canon, or "Canon Events" as they call them, that happen across dimensions (an Uncle Ben figure dying to teach the Spider-Person responsibility, a Friend on the Force making a Heroic Sacrifice to save a child, right down to the radioactive spider bite) have to happen to prevent a Reality-Breaking Paradox, even if this goes against how Spider-Man has also been about proving that it can be helped. This even plays into Miguel's animosity towards Miles; because Miles' spider didn't come from Miles' dimension, that left the dimension that the spider came from without a Spider-Man, thus making Miles a Paradox Person in Miguel's eyes.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Trainspotting, Tommy tells Renton about their friend Begbie beating someone up for nothing, ending it with "Begbie's fuckin' psycho, man! But... he's a mate, so what can you do?" (Throughout the rest of the story Renton slowly realizes that maybe that kind of thinking just isn't enough.)

  • Shogun by James Clavell uses this phrase as a subtheme, although there it is mispelled as "Shigata ga nai". Shikata ga nai.
  • Snow Falling on Cedars has Kabuo Miyamoto, who uses this to fuel his belief that he cannot change the circumstances surrounding his unfair trial due to prejudices remaining from WWII.
  • In the non-fiction novel Hiroshima, this is one of the character's catchphrases. It's even written out in romaji in Gratuitous Japanese of sorts.
  • Harry Turtledove has several characters - including non-Japanese - using the phrase in his Worldwar series.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars mentions "shikata ga nai" being introduced to the initial colonists en route to Mars by their sole Japanese member. Even in the future, space flight is a long, slow endeavor, so with a lot of things they can't help, the phrase quickly enters everyday usage.
  • Comes up darkly in Fate/Zero: This is what Noritaka Emiya has to say after his experiments have turned the village he was staying in into inhuman monsters and leading to their annihilation by the Church and Magus Association, his son's best friend/first love Shirley being the first. He has to burn the evidence (his research), and move somewhere else to start again (with likely the same results), and this is all he has to say. Kiritsugu kills him for this.

    Live Action TV 
  • All the time on The Sopranos, in the form of "[But] What are you gonna do?"
  • On HBO's Carnivàle, as Ben drives out to confront another person, he runs into Libby and Jonesy along the side of the road. After saving them (which winds up taking the rest of the day), Libby apologizes to Ben for ruining his plans. He simply shrugs and replies, "It couldn't be helped."
  • In Kamen Rider Double, Phillip bemoans this when Shotaro starts spamming him to henshin.

  • King Crimson has an instrumental titled "Shoganai" (later reworked into "The Power to Believe II").
  • Bo-en's song "My Time" uses this during the bridge.
  • "Samo Mi Se Spava"note  by Serbian singer Luke Black is about the narrator wanting to escape from the world that is burning around them by sleeping forever.

  • In the stage production of Kamen Rider Decade, there was a skit about Faiz, Kuuga, Ryuki, Kabuto, Decade, and Diend being hungry and wanting to get a bite to eat. Decade argues with the other Riders about how there's no time, but Faiz calls in a reservation at IXA's Italian restaurant anyway. Decade just sighs, says, "It can't be helped", and goes along. Hilarity ensues.
  • The concept of gaman is central to the musical Allegiance (2012) starring George Takei and loosely based on his own experiences in an internment camp during World War II. The Japanese inmates initially turn to gaman to help them survive the camps, but the concept is also deconstructed as some younger inmates try to take whatever agency and power they can get and even rebel against the camp guards.
  • Four times, Waiting for Godot characters declare, "Nothing to be done." Helplessness before life is a recurring theme of the play.

    Video Games 
  • Persona 5: Examined and defied. As a game that takes a harsh look at Japanese society, the game criticizes the mindset as not showing forbearance, but letting horrible people get away with horrible things if you choose to look the other way. This is exemplified by the entire city of Tokyo representing the sin of Sloth. After the Phantom Thieves take down Corrupt Politician Masayoshi Shido, they're shocked to see the people of Tokyo are still going to vote for him for Prime Minister of Japan, because "society would rather be told what to do than think for themselves." It takes stealing the collective treasure of the entire population as well as defeating the puppet master behind it all before the people start to wake up.
  • Pikmin: "Song of Love", the theme tune to the series, has this as its premise: It's all about how the Pikmin go through Hell for their leader, Olimar, yet despite the fact that it's very likely they'll die ignobly, "We don't ask that you love us." The song's single actually outsold the game itself because of how it resonated with the Salaryman public.
  • Ganbare Goemon': In Goemon's Great Adventure'', this is the party's reaction to Goemon being forced into doing a certain sidequest... though it only pops up if you're playing with a friend.
  • Ace Attorney: Used frequently in the Japanese versions of the games, often spoken by a witness before they finally confess information they were hiding.
  • Dwarf Fortress: The 2014 release introduced a more in-depth conversation system with NPCs/dwarfs reacting to news based on how it makes them feel. The neutral, apathetic response of "It was inevitable" is by far the common reaction; in crowded areas where villagers pass information among themselves it's not uncommon to see multiple "It was inevitable" statements in the time it takes to move one square. The phrase has already been adopted by the community via Memetic Mutation, and serves as a sort of corollary to the game's "official" slogan. After all, in Dwarf Fortress losing was not only fun, it was inevitable.
  • Resident Evil: The original game has Barry say this verbatim while Jill is lamenting the sudden disappearance of their captain, Wesker. The fact that the situation theoretically can be helped makes it a picture-perfect example of the "gaman" attitude; he's not saying there's nothing they can do, he's just telling Jill not to fret about it.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this is Urbosa's attitude to Zelda's failure to unlock her Royalty Super Power needed to defeat Calamity Ganon at the Spring of Wisdom. Urbosa realizes that however desperately Hyrule needs that sealing power, Zelda has already gone above and beyond to fulfill her duty to the kingdom.
  • Final Fantasy VIII: During the mission to assassinate Edea on disc 1, Irvine's Cold Sniper facade breaks down and he tells Squall that he just can't take the shot. Squall convinces him to shoot anyway just to say he still followed through with the plan if nothing else, but Edea deflects the bullet with a magical barrier. Irvine apologies for being unable to kill the sorceress, but Squall says he shouldn't feel ashamed since, barrier aside, Irvine's aim was still dead-on.

    Web Original 
  • In Sephiroth vs. Vergil from DEATH BATTLE!, after Vergil manages to cause Sephiroth significant injury, Sepiroth says as much, all the while casting illusions to distract Vergil so that he could heal his wounds.

    Western Animation 
  • A Running Gag in The Flintstones is for an animal rigged up in stone age technology performing a menial task to look directly into the camera and say "it's a living" with sad resignation.
  • In The Transformers episode "Enter the Nightbird," Dr. Fujiyama says words to this effect after Optimus Prime apologizes for his failure to protect Fujiyama's new invention from Megatron.