The cost of しようがない

Lars Rosengren
Sep 13, 2019 · 5 min read

The expression しようがない (shiyoganai) or 仕方がない (shikataganai) have fascinated me since I came to Japan. It is also expressions that have been controversially challenged by non-Japanese people, who interpret it as pessimistic or conservative, so I will try to avoid making the same mistake. Often expressions like this are rooted in culture, which is why when put in context of e.g. American, French, German or Swedish culture it takes on a different meaning. What I have been particularly fascinated with is the potential personal and financial costs, associated with overusing the term しょうがないね. Could companies suffer substantial costs due to employees being reluctant to address outdated, but difficult to challenge, company norms? Could the individual employee be causing stress and frustrations for him/herself that may lead to significant health costs later in life?

As always, when translating expressions like this, it leaves room for some subjectivity and ambiguity. However, in simple terms Shikataganai or Shiyoganai roughly means “it can’t be helped” or “there are times we need to just accept reality because we don’t always have control over every situation”, or effectively just accepting what seems to be the “norm” and trying to make the most of what we can influence.

Some cultures may frown upon this and say it’s too fatalistic and pessimistic. However, given that Japan is a country that has experienced significant natural disasters it puts things in a slightly different perspective. It could be a healthy way of accepting what is or has happened, see beyond it and move forward. In the context of cluttered minds and popularisation of the buddhist concept of mindfulness, it can also help to provide focus on what we can influence and let go of certain things that may not be worth worrying about. So there is no doubt that the expression しようがない serves a purpose and that it is deeply ingrained in culture.

there are times we need to just accept reality because we don’t always have control over every situation

However, in a more modern context the expression has perhaps come to be overused. Often it takes the meaning “I can’t be bothered” or “we just have to accept it”, actually referring to things that are within our control. My boss does not believe in Agile ways of working, so 仕方ないね or my company values working long hours rather than the quality of the products we deliver しようがないね。

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by John Cobb on Unsplash

Those are circumstances that may feel hard to challenge, but that we still do have a level of control over. Essentially, this does not describe an event or circumstances that are out of our control, but rather accepting what seems to be the “norm” and trying to make the most out of it. I could do something, I could find another job, I could challenge the ways of thinking in a small scale by experimenting on something that is less critical to my company, I could tirelessly work to show that quality matters. All of this may of course not lead to a better outcome, but it might. Although there are many things that we cannot control, we are in control of our responses.

Although there are many things that we cannot control, we are in control of our responses.

So, how does this influence building digital products and transforming culture. Well, we need to consider simple examples as above. We have heard countless times about companies who say, our company has not had a good experience with Agile, and as a consequence our management team does not believe it suits our company culture, 仕方ないですね。Of course, this could be for a number of reasons, they have had mediocre consultants in the past, trying to preach agile, but not being contextually aware and genuinely trying to understand the dynamics of the company culture. It can be based on superficial analysis, without genuine experience of testing it. However, the problem is that the company has already made up their mind, they assume they cannot change it.

When we face this kind of discussions, it is hard to, but I am always curious to open up what might become quite a long conversation about… Well, if you decided that your company is not suited to work in Agile, then what is it suited for? How is that working out? Have you considered the hidden costs involved in that?

This is often the surprising truth that while we take the stance that something new is abandoned and we are back to working in our conventional ways, nobody ever analysed how well the current ways of working are really working out for us? What are the consequences of not trying to improve?

Of course, Ustwo may come from a biased background in relation to Agile, but it is a relevant example when we talk about shiyonagai, because we are effectively accepting that we cannot do something that we believe would be right, but at the same time we are not considering the hidden costs of not changing, not doing any improvement.

Image for post
Image for post
Office environment (Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5)

There are no doubt situations when 仕方がない or しようがない are very appropriate, and that can help us be mindful about the challenges we face and shift focus to how we move forward to make the best of the given situation.

However, it may be wise to carefully consider — What is the hidden cost of making that choice? Is this something that is genuinely out of our control, or do we have a level of influence?

Many companies in Japan today face the challenge of uncertainty and potentially significant need for transformation to stay relevant in the future. On that journey, it becomes more relevant than ever to challenge our own thinking, and to consider both our ability to have a positive influence and our ability to challenge established norms — 仕方があるかもしれません・・・


A collection of ustwo stories

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store