Wednesday, November 3

"Sho ga nai" means "It can't be helped"

Peter Payne writes, "One interesting social concept I see at work a lot in Japan is the idea of 'gaman,' which means to endure or to tolerate something that's difficult to bear. The idea that is that if there's something you don't like around you, it's better to endure it stoically in an act of self-sacrifice rather than act immediately to change it. We see this every day: my wife and I will go to a restaurant that's much too cold, yet no one speaks up to ask the staff to turn the air conditioning down, preferring instead to tolerate the unpleasant situation. [...] Gaman is something that parents strive to teach to their kids at an early age here, since there are many situations when children need these skills here. The idea of an employee sacrificing himself for the good of his company or of a wife looking the other way when her husband has an affair are linked to this concept. There's a phrase the Japanese use quite often which reflects this tendency to endure something rather than change it: sho ga nai (also shikata ga nai), which means 'It can't be helped.'"

Wow. I was rather appalled when I first read that. How can you run a successful company when the employees are conditioned not to speak up about what's broken? How do you prevent embezzling when the accountants are conditioned to ignore rather than investigate or dispute discrepancies in the books? A dictatorial boss might see this as a utopian situation where drones perform their work with no questions asked, but that just wouldn't fly with me and my team. My employees' opinions are critical to my decision making process. I rely on them to fill-in the gaps of my knowledge and experience and to speak-up when they don't like something. However, Japan has certainly produced a plethora of successful technology companies, so I'm probably missing a piece of this puzzle. Would anybody care to clue me in?

3 comments:

Peter in Japan said...

As usual, Japan confuses all attempts at understanding it. There are obviosly exceptions -- and good companies -- but thinking back to Nissan before Carlos Goshn showed up, with employees with nothing to do coming out its ears, yet no one had the will to do what needed to be done (downsizing, big time). They all sat around and said, "Shikata ga nai" while their company sucked.

Ichigo said...

Responding to month-old blog posts seems kinda pathetic, but here we go :)

How can you run a successful company when the employees are conditioned not to speak up about what's broken?
I think the answer to this lies in not completely understanding the subtleties of these Japanese concepts--they are hard to explain. I think when it's someone's job to speak up about what's broken, they speak up, but if their boss doesn't want to hear it--"sho ga nai". Isn't it the same here? :)

How do you prevent embezzling when the accountants are conditioned to ignore rather than investigate
In my experience (two first-person anecdotes) when accountants discover embezzling at a company the embezzler is simply fired, the police are not involved to prevent embarassment to the company, and the accountants are threatened with being fired if they discuss these "confidential company matters" with anyone.

Alex said...

"However, Japan has certainly produced a plethora of successful technology companies, so I'm probably missing a piece of this puzzle. Would anybody care to clue me in?"

I would question how successful Japan is as a national economic venture now. In the past, Japan had counted on tradition. Sacrificing your individuality for the greater good of the group, trying to fit in , working long hours and simply trying hard (gambarimasu) did the trick. With the event of the new information economy and the economic collapse in Japan in the early 90s everything changed. Independent, critical and imaginative thinking became increasingly important, something the Japanese education system had not instilled in its people.

Make no mistake, the Japanese are so rich they don't even know it, but they also seem like a lost nation looking for some purpose. I don't think Sho ga nai will cut it any more at least in business endeavors.