Updated July 10, 2024

"Shikata Ga Nai" in Japanese: Learning to Let Go


Japan Dev Team

Japan Dev contributor

Letting things go is an art, and Japanese people have mastered it. In Japan, there's a whole philosophy contained in one simple phrase. 

“しかたがない (Shikata (ga) nai)” can be interpreted in a few ways, but it ultimately means “it is what it is.”

There’s a sense of relief in letting things be or accepting things as they are, even if they are less than ideal. And this is exactly what Japanese people use this phrase to express. 

So, instead of worrying, regretting, or holding onto the past, read on as I explore the phrase “Shikata ga nai”. I’ll explain the idea behind the concept, name some alternative phrases, and tell you how to use it and respond to it in everyday scenarios. 

First things first, let’s begin by exploring the deeper meaning of the phrase.

What Does Shikata Ga Nai Mean?

As I mentioned briefly, the phrase “しかたがない (Shikata (ga) nai)” is about letting things be, but what does it literally mean?

Most sources will tell you that the phrase means “It can’t be helped”, and this is close enough, but a more literal translation essentially conveys the meaning of “Nothing can be done about it.”

Oftentimes, you’ll hear people drop the particle “ga” and say “Shikata nai” as well, but the meaning is the same. 

As you may have already guessed, the phrase is usually for situations that are out of one’s control, implying admittance. 

However, while it may initially sound like a defeatist approach to life, it’s not meant to diminish one’s hopes by infecting them with cynicism, but rather accept things quickly and not be mentally tormented by every little mishap that’s out of our control.

How To Say Shikata Ga Nai The Right Way: Politeness Levels


As explained in various posts like “How to say sorry” or “Saying thank you in Japanese”, there are politeness levels in Japanese that you need to be mindful of when speaking to others. 

So, while I introduced the phrase as “Shikata ga nai”, this is a somewhat casual form of the phrase. If you don’t want to sound too rigid when speaking in real life, simply drop the “-ga” particle and say “Shikata nai”.

Of course, in some cases, you may need to take the politeness level up a notch. In more serious settings, the phrase しかたがありません。(Shikata ga arimasen) works better as it’s more formal.

If, however, you want to be extra fancy or need to be your most polite self, there’s an even better way to say, “It is what it is.” For the most formal settings, the phrase しかたがございません。(Shikata ga gozaimasen) is an even more respectful way to say, “It can’t be helped.”

Without getting too grim, let’s explore the origin of the phrase “Shikata na gai,” which also tells us a great deal about its cultural significance.

The Origin of “Shikata Ga Nai”: Understanding The Phrase Better

While not for certain (as is often the case with word origins), it’s believed that the phrase has Buddhist origins but became widely used after World War II. Following the tragic bombings that scarred the nation deeply, the emperor is known to have used this phrase in his statements, which was soon picked up by the public as a way to cope with the tragedy.

Similarly, the phrase has also been used to deal with the many natural disasters and other tragic events throughout Japan’s history.

That said, it’s important to emphasize that the phrase isn’t meant to dismiss or minimize what’s happened. 

On the contrary, Japanese people care deeply about learning from past mistakes and commemorating them so that they can learn and prevent similar events from occurring again.

So, “Shikata ga nai” is more about moving on. It’s meant to provide relief so that one can let go of the past, and it facilitates an important step in healing from trauma.

The Culture Around “Shikata Ga Nai”

We talked about how the phrase “Shikata ga nai” has stemmed from a willingness to move on to save one from continuous, unnecessary mental anguish. However, this isn’t the only reason why the phrase is so prominent in Japanese culture.

Another use is when you want to save others the burden of carrying your pain. 

I’ve talked extensively about the prominence of the concepts of Honne and Tatemae in Japanese culture, but to sum it up: Japanese people are traditionally taught to have a public and a private “face” from a young age. 

To keep things private and not trouble others with their worries, Japanese people learn to put a smiling face in public even when things aren’t going well in their lives. In a way, “Shikata ga nai” is an extension of this culture, uttered instinctively when one doesn’t want to worry others, especially those they aren’t close with.

Another reason for this is the collectivist tendencies you’ll notice in Japanese culture. Societal harmony is important here, and things that can’t be controlled should, therefore, be accepted to avoid discussions and conflicts, which often stem from voicing negative thoughts in the first place.

Lastly, another cultural reason why the idea of letting go is so prominent is due to the romanticized idea of heroism or stoicism in Japanese culture. 

Pain and suffering are seen as tools or even necessities for growth. Therefore, rather than complaining, accepting hardships and obstacles is deemed more admirable, as it demonstrates the person’s mental and physical endurance.

Other Situations For Using “Shikata Ga Nai”: Negative Connotations

In addition to conveying acceptance, Shikata ga nai can also have a negative meaning. 

For example, when someone is “helpless” or “can’t be saved”, saying “Shikata ga nai” implies that they’re a “lost cause”. So, in this context, the phrase implies judgment and is more negative in tone.

A “Shikata ga nai” attitude can still have a negative context even if you don’t use it to judge someone.

While it’s good to adopt it as a general philosophy for when things out of your control go wrong, being too accepting can also be deemed a negative action.

For instance, saying “Shikata ga nai” to your coworkers who ask for your support to address unfair treatment by an employer can mean “I don’t care” or that you’re too scared to do anything.

So, if it implies immediate surrender and acceptance of things that are not uncontrollable but are hard to control, the phrase can very well be received negatively. So, while practicing the philosophy of letting go is good, it’s important not to let it turn into general carelessness.

The Alternatives: Phases That Are Similar To “Shikata Ga Nai”


So far, I have only referred to the common phrase “Shikata ga nai” and its more and less polite versions. However, there are other ways to say, “It is what it is” or “It can’t be helped”.

For instance, the less formal phrase “Shou ga nai” is a more casual way to say the same thing and is as common in daily life as “Shikata ga nai.”

Alternatively, you may also hear “Shou ga nai naa!”. Oftentimes, when said in such a casual tone, the phrase often means “Oh well” or “Well, what can you do.” So, it can even be used to voice your complaint about something minor.

For instance, if a little sister always puts off finishing her homework until the last minute and asks for her big brother’s help once again, the brother may agree but voice his frustration with a もう、しょうがないな。今回だけだよ。(Mou, shou ga nai na. Konkai dake dayo.) which means something like, “Oh well, but just this once.”

Examples of Ways to Say “Shikata Ga Nai” in Daily Life and How to Respond

Now that we’re almost at the end, let’s go ahead and explore a few other real-life scenarios where it may be appropriate to use “Shikata ga nai”, as well as how you can respond to it in certain cases.

For one, while it’s a good way to let go of worries and sorrow for yourself, the phrase can also be used when consoling others. 

Just like you say it to yourself when things are out of your control, you can also say it to someone who has had an accident or lived through an unfortunate event to say, “There wasn’t anything you could do.”

Another occasional instance of using “Shou ga nai” or “Shikata ga nai” can be when you want to agree with someone while acknowledging a fact. 

For example, say you’re talking to a receptionist to book a room last minute, but it’s around the holidays, and they tell you that everything is booked. In this case, you can use “Shikata ga nai” to acknowledge that it’s your fault, there’s nothing to do, and that it’s okay.

Here’s what a potential answer looks like in Japanese: まあ、ちょうどクリスマスの時期だったし、こちらも予約するのが遅かったし。だから今回は仕方ないですね。(Mā, chōdo Christmas no jikidattashi, kochira mo yoyaku suru no ga osokattashi. Dakara konkai wa shikatanai desu ne), or “It can’t be helped that it’s Christmas season and I’m booking pretty late. No worries”. 

Closing Thoughts on Shikata Ga Nai Meaning


As you can see, “Shikata ga nai” is more than a phrase – it’s a philosophy, a way of life, and a big part of Japanese culture. 

In fact, similar to Daijobu, this is one of those sayings you won’t fully get the hang of for a while, but once you do, you’ll finally start to feel like a local. 

So, while the examples I shared above are all relevant, they’re not the only cases where you’ll hear Shikata ga nai used.

To sum things up, the phrase, without context, means “It can’t be helped,” but it can also mean “It is what it is” or “Oh well”, implying acceptance, and most importantly, closure regarding a grievance. 

While mostly used as a response to things that are deemed negative by the person saying it, the phrase is mostly positive in meaning as it involves resolution after a moment of brief, harmless venting.

Mind you, the phrase can also be used in a negative way to judge someone who is a helpless mess. So, “Shikata ga nai” or the less formal version “Shou ga nai” can have a negative weight to it, and it’s important to read the context well, which may take time.

If you want to learn more about the beautifully complex Japanese culture, I recommend checking out my post on cracking the code to non-verbal Japanese communication, which has plenty of useful tips. 


Japan Dev Team

This post was written by our Japan Dev editorial team.