Things transform in translation just as light mutates as it passes through a prism. What appears to be a unified band of energy is dissected, so that each individual wavelength can shine and be seen for its own beauty.
In the same way, culture alters as it passes through the prism of generations. It morphs into something new as a wave of immigrants takes root in fresh soil. As we transplant and reinvent ourselves, we gain a new vantage point and acquire a new view.
So it is for me with the phrase shikata ga nai.
I have heard this for as long as I can remember; it was uttered as a sigh of defeat by my grandparents. It was muttered as muted defiance, it was whispered as a prayer for help, it was cried in grief. It signaled silent long-enduring suffering.
It means, roughly, “it can’t be helped” or “there’s nothing for it”. You pick up your burden and shoulder on through the pain. Sometimes it is a statement of resignation, other times it is a comforting blanket to shelter you. Call it fate if you will. It is always there in the background and it permeates your thinking.
If there’s one thing I have taken away from being raised as a Japanese-American, it’s that unity is Everything. Unity equals harmony. Harmony equals good. Don’t cause waves, don’t make ripples, and always think of the greater good. You as an individual are less important than the whole of society. You are a tiny photon in the Big Ray of Light. You practice shikata ga nai because your ancestors did, and it is part of your life philosophy.
That belief, that mantra was poured down on me like a beam of white light. It was one of those powerful spotlights, cutting through the night sky, guiding us back to the fold, the central tenet of gaman or perseverance. It hid nothing, it sheltered nothing. In its stark clarity, we could do nothing but huddle together and endure. Just as the sun at noon casts no shadow, there was no dark corner to hide and seek respite. Shikata ga nai: the spirit battening down its hatches, trying to outlast the storm.
It served me well. For awhile.
And then I moved away and everything changed. My accent, my confidence, my viewpoint, my world.
I stopped following the proscribed sine wave for colorless light. I started developing prisms and angles in my mind. I poured concentrated potent beliefs like shikata ga nai through them, and instead of it emerging intact like a solid monolith, this mindset shattered into a thousand gorgeous colors. I was blinded by its beauty, astonished by the possibilities.
Solid unassailable interpretation became multi-hued nuances. One definition broke down into multiple variations on a theme, and became subject to life experiences and human whim. My individual spirit stepped out of the noon sun and cast my unique shadow in the sand. I stopped assuming and started thinking. I started to be ME.
I began to see shikata ga nai not as a chant to keep my spirit from despairing. Yes, it was still that, but it became so much more. It stopped being the chain that held me to my culture, and started to be the touchstone that reminded me of where I come from and, more importantly, what I could bear. It changed from resignation to resolution.
It now means that there is nothing for it BUT to move forward in the face of danger and hardship. I may not be able to change the circumstances, but I can dig in, stand my ground, concede gracefully when I need to, fight like the devil when I know it’s right. There is no reverse. Shikata ga nai.