I hate this phrase. I hate it with all my being. This phrase is unquestionably guilty of dire crimes against humanity, and in this court I shall prove it. Your honour and members of the jury, please be aware that this is no small matter. If this phrase is given less than a life sentence, or worse, disregarded as the minor dealings of petulant behaviour, then I say to you that you severely underestimate the consequences. Think of all the lives this phrase has scorned its wake. All the tragedies and misfortunes. Worst of all, to imagine that each and every one of those terrible things could have been avoided. It is our duty, our responsibility, to see that this phrase can never again harm someone. Members of the jury, I ask you to look at this phrase. しょうがない pronounced ‘shouganai’ in English, meaning ‘it can’t be helped’. Look deep into its syllables when you review the evidence. Let yourselves consider all its connotations. Let its treacherous echo hang in your ears. Don’t be blinded by it’s charming convenience within the Japanese language; a handsome phrase can be as criminal as an ugly one.
It’s crimes in short fall upon one simple fact; its definition. ‘It can’t be helped’ was a phrase originally designed to help people describe situations of which they had no control over. Your house fell down during the earthquake? しょうがない. You can’t help us carry the furniture up to the apartment on the top floor because you’re ill? しょうがない. Oh, you’ve lost all faith in humanity after one conversation with Elodie? しょうがない. Terrible things might have happened but they are not our fault nor could we have prevented them. しようがない was instrumental in describing that feeling of wishing things could have been better and expressing regret at being powerless to do anything about it. Life is full of misfortunes that we cannot predict and we must do our best to get by in the circumstances that befall us. But what about those things we can control, things we can save? I would like to present to the court, exhibit A.
The witnesses Xulugn, Elodie, her then-boyfriend and myself along with a few others, all joined each other to see ‘Nobou’s castle’ at the cinema. I hadn’t eaten anything yet but I was assured I could buy something to snack on in the cinema. Everyone ordered popcorn because how else can you keep the stereotypes alive (I think one of them might have liked it anyway. Maybe) but I had my eyes on the tortilla chips. When I asked for them the staff member gave me three choices. Set A, B or C. So very simple. Set A; tortilla chips. Set B; tortilla chips with melted plastic that he called cheese. Set C; tortilla chips with plastic and salsa sauce. The sets were not preprepared. The sauces had to be drizzled on manually by him. Asking for no sauce would have been too dry and my body had this habit of rejecting plastic as a nutritious substance, so I said “I’ll have set C , but no cheese sauce please”. All he had to do was pour one of the sauces, not both.
“I’m sorry sir. That’s not one of the sets. You’ll have to have cheese too”. There are many things I have to do and guzzle melted polythene isn’t among them. But Set C was the most expensive so I replied “I don’t mind paying Set C’s price. Just leave off the cheese”.
“I’m sorry sir. It can’t be done”
“Why on earth not?”
“It’s not on the set menu. しょうがない”.
This conversation continued for another 15 minutes until I was priming to launch myself over the counter at him. Xulugn was quick to swoop in and stop me from escalating the conversation further into a fight. In Japan, paperwork and following the system is highly valued. But at the same time, the difference should be stressed, between しょうがない and just being an asshole.
In Japan many businesses organise their own celebrations to attract customers, usually with the promise of discounts. Most common among them are the ‘men’s and women’s days’, a time for you to celebrate that random chance when you received a certain pair of chromosomes in the womb (I’m not sure about how Japan handles transgender in these instances). So if you’re fortunate to have the right set, you can expect the discounts and special privileges. The only catch is, the priority on a specific gender is not entirely equal; rather ‘women’s days’ are far more prevalent. Back at the cinema in Yokohama, it was women’s day with half price tickets every Wednesday, but I never saw a discount for men at any time. I discussed this with Svetlana who happily skipped inside one Wednesday.
“Yes, it is 差別 (discrimination). But it’s ‘positive’ 差別”. If you’re female that is.
Can discrimination, even so-called positive discrimination, ever be a good thing? It’s certainly used with good intentions; to support minorities or offer opportunities to those who would not normally be able to benefit. Svetlana’s opinion was also valid; women in Japan get the short end of the stick with most aspects of daily life. A few cheap cinema tickets can barely compensate for the mountain of injustices that they put up with. (Lately Japan has been reevaluated as having one of the biggest gender gaps in the world. What wonderful news just before the Tokyo olympics highlights Japan to the world in all its backward splendour). But I wonder, even if those compensations were great enough to match the level of discrimination, is it enough to justify being treated differently? Perhaps if they spent their time trying to change social values and opinions through education and laws, then they wouldn’t need to focus so much on token appeasement. Without it, there will exist this perpetual belief that Japanese women require more care and support in society, either because they’re paid less, don’t work at all or simply aren’t motivated to do anything other than housework and child rearing. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I have to pay full price for my cinema tickets. When the cashier explained to me there were no men’s days at the cinema, he shrugged his shoulders. しょうがない so I’m told.
Nightclubs were very much the same as the cinema, with their free entry to women on many occasions. Perhaps it’s merely to increase the number of their female customers (heavens knows why. I’m sure their reluctance has nothing to do with the behaviour of their male counterparts in the late hours of the night). When we went, the women within our group were kind enough to pay half the cost of the men’s entry tickets so that it would be affordable for everyone. In the club, I found myself dancing beside a Japanese girl who turned to face me and smiled. After some awkward and innocent dancing (awkward is the only style of dancing I know) any attempt at flirting was cut short by an elbow crashing into my head. The elbow in question belonged to a man who decided, what better way to win a young girls heart than to knock the fellow she’s already dancing with to the ground and then push himself into her. By the time I was back on my feet I caught one last glimpse of her blurred figure as she sprinted away. I got up to find a Japanese student from our group trying to settle things down by slow dancing into my back, arms raised above his head. I didn’t know how to politely say ‘thanks but as sexy as this is, dancing with you is not much of a compensation for a blow to the head and a dance with a pretty young girl’. I asked if him if we should go talk to the bouncer. He looked briefly at the guys who had knocked me down and shrugged. ‘No. しょうがない’.
Softbank is one of the big phone providers in Japan and they could have taught Margaret Thatcher a thing or two about inflexibility. Buying a phone should have taken no longer than 20 minutes so I thought. But there were a few problems. Living in Japan for only a year was a problem, being a foreigner was a problem, being a paying customer was a problem.First one hour. Then three. It gets to five and you start to really wonder if they do want to sell you a phone. When it hits six hours they come at last.
“We’ve sorted all the paperwork now. Here is your brand new phone. Along with your passport, bank details, residency cards, health insurance certificates and the shreds that remain of your soul. It’s all been checked in and you now have a charge contract. Remember, you can only top up by 3000 or 5000 yen from this list of two convenience stores. Don’t forget, any money you top up will be erased at the end of every other month unless you recharge, regardless of your usage”. To think, all it took was six hours to hear all that. If I complained or argued would it have changed the rules, or returned those six hours to me? Through gritted teeth I am forced to accept the conditions and mutter ‘しょうがない’.
Your honour. In light of the overwhelming evidence surmounted against this phrase, there is only one true justice we can deliver. Complete abolishment of this phrase from dictionaries and it’s execution from the Japanese language. Perhaps long ago, this phrase started out as a normal innocent addition to the lexis of many people; helping us all to quietly describe our troubles and wishes. But the years have tainted it, mutated it, into this grotesque lie you see before you. No longer does it express our regrets. Now it’s nothing more than a means of escape from judgement. A method of justifying terrible actions and subduing the natural guilt those actions would cause. If allowed to resurface into society, how many more thoughtless and avoidable crimes of inflexibility can we afford to tolerate? The heinous existence of this phrase will continue you to haunt us all if you, the jury, do not follow your solemn duty and condemn it. With the evolution of language, none of us wish to forcefully execute any word or phrase. Even distasteful language has it’s place and use. So, as difficult as it is to accept destroying it, I must impress upon you with great pain, しょうがない.