Years ago, when I started doing business in Japan, I was working on a rather large deal with one of the largest Japanese insurance companies. They thought our price increase was way too high and had no real justification. Negotiations were tough. At a certain point, after having exahusted all possible avenues of persuasion, I was beginning to lose hope of convincing the customer to continue working with us. It was then that a colleauge of mine, with decades of experience of working in Japan, told me it was time to use the ultimate weapon: shikata-ga-nai.
Translated into English, Shikata-ga-nai means “it cannot be helped” or “it is hopeless”. What my friend was recommending was to tell the customer that there was no more room for negotiations. It was a “hopeless” situation and that was that. Apparently, once shikata-ga-nai is uttered under such circumstances, the other party understands you have reached the limit of your bargaining leeway; it is now decision time, a sort of “take it or leave it” situation. My friend added that shikata-ga-nai should be used only in extreme situations – “once a year at most” I recall him saying – otherwise one loses his credibility very quickly. With trepidation, I followed my friend’s advice. It worked and we got the deal.
Shikata-ga-nai is a word you hear often in Japan although almost never in a business context. Its more informal version – sho-ga-nai – is used in daily conversations and is usually accompanied by a light shrug, an expression of hopelessness. People use it to tell you that they tried everything, but “it just cannot be helped”. In a sense it conveys the opposite message of ganbatte, another popular Japanese expression meaning “do your best”.
Sometimes the use of shikata-ga-nai is a chilling expression used by someone coming to terms with a bitter reality. I recently read “Hiroshima” by John Hersey, a book about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima city on August 6, 1945. In his first-hand account of six survivors, Hersey provides a unique glimpse into the state of mind of the people of Hiroshima in the hours and days following the bombing. One expression by survivors which is mentioned several times throughout the book is shikata-ga-nai, but here it has a different meaning. Injured by the bomb, separated from their families, left with no possessions, these survivors answer the journalist’s questions by a final shikata-ga-nai, here truly meaning there is no more hope.