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Philosophical Lessons from Japan

Elizabeth Baldwin

I'm going to wrap up my month of philosophical blogs with a lesson from Japan.

If you translate "shoganai" in a computer translation service, it often comes up as "there is no ginger," which always amuses those of us who speak a little Japanese. Shoganai is more properly translated as, "That's life," or "Can't be helped," but it often goes deeper into the Japanese psyche. It is used as a way of shrugging off a bad situation, of course, but it is also very often a way of shrugging off responsibility.

The Japanese have a culture often focused on perseverance. "Ganbatte" is another often-heard term, something translated as "hang on" or "persevere," but should be more accurately rendered in many cases as "tolerate long past what common sense dictates simply because pride demands it." Ironically, "shoganai" is almost the same thing, in the sense of meaning "tolerate this because you should."

I used to lecture in Japan on the word "shoganai" and how it was too often an excuse for inaction. I told my students that the only things they should use shoganai for would be if it rains on their picnic. They truly couldn't help that. (Unfortunately, one aspect of the culture would be to "ganbatte" through the planned picnic anyway, but if you can't help something, you just have to persevere through it…)

However, I told them that they should never accept "shoganai" as a response to a situation that they could change. If they had a bad job, they should try to change it. If they didn't like the Japanese political system, they should try to change it. If they weren't happy in a relationship, they should try to change it, too. Shrugging it off as something that was just to be tolerated wasn't acceptable. You persevere to a point, and maybe you persevere when you have absolutely no choice, but you don't just accept things that you do have a chance to change.

I look back over this month of blogs and see that the message in all of them is the same. Biology class: The world will throw up obstacles, so you have to either change the world or change yourself in response. And Japan: Learn what you have to accept and what you don't.

I'm in DC now and tomorrow I will spend two days at the Hardwood Federation Fly-In. I'm going to do what I can to change the business environment just a little bit. I'll tell you about it next week. And I hope next year that more of you will join me. Don't shrug things off, assuming you have no power. You only have no say if you don't speak up.

On that thought, we'll close with another great quote I've used before: "Laws are made by those who show up." I can only hope that this month's philosophical ramblings encourages some of you to show up in the future. Or am I just ganbatting along here?

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