Use and Meaning of Shouganai(しょうがない) in Japanese : Sometimes there are phrases in Japanese that are pretty easy to translate into English, but might be used differently from their literal translation. “Shouganai” (しょうがない) is one of those.

In this article, we’ll look at the literal translation of this phrase and talk about how it’s actually used in conversation. This is another really common phrase that will be good to know how to use. 

Japanese Common Phrases #12 Shouganai
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What Does Shouganai(しょうがない) Mean (Literally) in Japanese?

The first thing to note about this phrase is that there are actually two really common phrases here. One is “Shouganai,” which tends to be more colloquial, and the other is “Shikata ga nai” (仕方がない=Shouganai), which I’ve heard used a bit more formally. You can make “Shikata ga nai” even more formal by using the formal negative conjugation of “aru” and say “Shikata ga arimasen” (仕方がありません=Shouganai)

These phrases are pretty much interchangeable at the colloquial level, depending on your preferred speaking style, but you never really make “Shouganai” more formal. It’s one of those things that I can’t explain why, but I’ve never heard anyone do it. 

Translating these directly into English is pretty easy because they mean practically the same thing. “Nai” is, of course, the negative form of “aru,” and means “there isn’t.” “Shikata” (仕方) and “shou” (仕様) have almost the exact same meaning, which you might be able to tell from the fact they share their first kanji. They mean “way” or “method.”

So, if we put this together, we get a direct translation of “There is no way,” or “There is no method.” These are both valid English sentences, despite being direct translations from Japanese, but they don’t quite convey how this phrase is actually used.

What Does Shouganai(しょうがない) Mean (Not Literally)?

Is “Shouganai” “It can’t be helped.”?

The best way I can translate “Shouganai” is “It can’t be helped.” It kind of fits with the English translations if you translate it as “There’s nothing I can do about it.” 

This might be a little silly, but whenever I’m thinking of how to translate “Shouganai,” I always think of the shrug emoticon. You know. This one. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It basically gives the idea of “I understand this might not be ideal, but I also can’t do anything about it, so I’m going to move on and do what I can.” It’s actually pretty similar to the French phrase “C’est la vie,” if you’re familiar with that.

This phrase is interesting because we can understand the idea and feeling behind it, but English doesn’t really have a phrase that expresses all of that. 

It also has more uses than you might initially think. I use this phrase almost daily. If you get stuck in traffic and it makes you late, shouganai. If you’re in line at the bakery, and the person before you buys the last cookie even though you wanted it, shouganai. If the wind messes up your hair right when you were trying to take that selfie, shouganai. If you’re talking to someone in Japanese and you make a silly mistake, shouganai.

However, remember that this phrase is mostly used for inconsequential things. Traffic and cookies are pretty minor things, but you wouldn’t use this phrase when your friend told you their dog died. 

Shouganai –That’s Right, This Is Cultural Too

This mindset fits very well with Japanese culture. Despite the phrase being used to describe negative things a lot of the time, it’s actually a pretty positive way to look at the world. It can be better to not get hung up on things outside of your control, and that’s what this phrase is all about.

When you say this, you’re recognizing that you might not like whatever is going on, but you’re going to get past it and move on. A brief look at Japanese history will show you that the Japanese have been through a lot, but they’ve always been able to move on and improve themselves. This reflects in the mindset of a lot of Japanese people, and it’s certainly a good trait for anyone to develop.

So, feel free to add this phrase into your everyday conversations. It’s a nice way to convey a feeling we can’t always express in English. And hey, if you mess up and use it wrong for some reason, shouganai,shouganai,shouganai.

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