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 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 that 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 with free speech in mind, and 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. Britons have the concept of the Stiff Upper Lip, the idea of dismissing troubles and snarking irreverently about it. 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. It's also a characteristic of the Yamato Nadeshiko.
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?") has a pretty similar meaning, even carrying the negative connotations of its 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.
- 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 a lot in Digimon Adventure 02.
- 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 couldn't accept Madoka's death/bewitching and worked obsessively to undo it. So it is, in a sense, a subversion.
- 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!"
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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 camps guards.
- Four times, Waiting for Godot characters declare, "Nothing to be done." Helplessness before life is a recurring theme of the play.
- Examined and defied in Persona 5. 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.
- "Song of Love", the theme tune to the Pikmin 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.
- 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.
- Used frequently in the Japanese versions of the Ace Attorney games, often spoken by a witness before they finally confess information they were hiding.
- The 2014 release of Dwarf Fortress 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.
- The original Resident Evil 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.
- 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.
- A phrase often quoted by Western reporters who visited the afflicted area after the Touhoku Earthquake of 2011. Along with gaman, it was used to describe the lives of the disaster victims after the earthquake and tsunami, mostly on how they coped with the grief, the anxiety, freezing weather, and uncomfortable living circumstances. Was picked up on particularly because of the stark difference of how the victims reacted to the disaster compared to the more unfortunate victims of Haiti and Hurricane Katrina.
- As already explained, Mexicans has their own version of this, and unlike the Japanese, this is not portrayed as a good thing. Due to an unholy combination of Values Dissonance (internal and external), Cultural Cringe, Cultural Posturing, many problems with crime and corruption in many parts of the Mexican society and fatalism taken to the extreme, Mexicans are normally taught to tolerate many bad things that can befall them, but when the Mexicans decide they have had enough of tolerating too much crap, the results are NOT pretty
- Averted with the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, a group that formed to resist the draft of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, whose motto was "No shikata ga nai". They were initially viewed as traitors and cowards by their community, partially due to the prevalence of this attitude, but later generations, especially after the civil rights movement, saw their resistance as heroic and justified.
- Also averted like hell in the Middle Eastern cultures as well, both in Israel and Arab countries as well, and for good reasons: In the Israeli case, centuries of Jews being systematically exterminated by many powerful empires, especially during World War II, has caused Israelis to not quickly surrender or tolerate attitudes that could destroy them, no matter any other options available for them. The same goes for Arabs, but raised Up to Eleven, as they are aware of this trope, but they normally refuse to accept it, thank to a mix of national pride, self-preservation and cultural reasons. This is one of the reasons why many of the conflicts that have occurred in that region of the world have lasted for decades, and without any of the parties deciding to seek a negotiated solution other than the destruction of the opponent, even if the conflict is very detrimental to all parties involved.