Shōganai Spirit

Learning to embrace the inevitable

It’s been ten years since a massive earthquake struck off the north-eastern coast of Japan. I had only moved to Japan a month prior. Hundreds of kilometres away, I still felt it. In part, I couldn’t help feeling excited. It was the first earthquake I’d ever experienced!

It became painfully clear in the hours to come how devastating it was for those nearer the epicentre. It was months or years later before I saw the footage of what happened. It was terrifying.

Engineering has prevailed over earthquakes in many ways. Buildings are built to be incredibly resilient to the shakes and waves beneath them. But tsunami are another beast entirely.

Many inhabited coasts are lined with walls. Rivers are often terraformed to make them deeper so they can take the inflows of water should a tsunami come.

There was no way any such preparations could’ve held back what came that day. It was beastly. It was fierce.

I’ve often thought about how much Japan has changed me, and there’s one thing I’ve adopted that stands out: the shōganai spirit. The attitude that there’s nothing you can do about it, it can’t be helped, so it’s best to move on with your life.

Shōganai spirit pervades everything in Japan. Didn’t get that five-year residency permit you’ve requested every year for the past seven? Shōganai. Train’s delayed because of a (highly euphemistic) human-related accident? Shōganai. Have to work three seven-day weeks this month? Shōganai.

I both love and hate it. I love it for the freedom it can give – I don’t have to get worked up about everything around me, especially when it’s out of my control. I hate it for its restrictiveness – if I don’t push back, how will anything change?

I’ve wondered where it came from. But as this anniversary came around, I had a thought. Consider that there’s an earthquake in Japan pretty much daily, and that the next one could be massive. Consider, too, that a tsunami could follow it and swallow up every stitch you call your own and everything around you.

How could you not have a sense of powerlessness and resignation in the face of that and the aftermath?

I suppose the shōganai spirit is a lot like religion, but with one important difference to me. Rather than pinning everything on a character from a fairy story, the power lies in me. I choose to embrace the shōganai spirit, release the anguish and put it behind me, and find a way forward.

11 March 2021