During my lifetime, I lived a little more than 8 years outside the United States, all of it in Asia and Southeast Asia—Japan for more than four years, India for nearly three, and China for a little more than a year, where I also spent quite a bit of time in rural Korea. I also worked for a Japanese company in the U.S. for 11 years, where I had many opportunities to interact with both the Japanese assignees and their families. I have often wondered the impact that living in Asia and working with people from Eastern cultures has had on both my attitudes and approach to life—and death.
I was thinking about this more lately not only because of the latest setback in my treatment, but also because on our trans-coastal flight from San Francisco to New York in June, I watched a Japanese film called “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (Hana’s Miso Soup). It is based on a true story, and is about a young woman diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before her wedding, who then goes on to have a child, which is risky because it can cause recurrence. Indeed, several months after her daughter’s birth, the cancer does return and is metastatic. Although she is able to beat it back temporarily with more chemotherapy, eventually the disease progresses to the point where nothing more can be done. Wanting her 4 year old daughter to learn how to be self-sufficient, she teaches her how to cook, including how to make miso soup, a staple of Japanese cuisine—hence the movie’s title.
Throughout this ordeal, Chie, the mother, refuses to be a victim, understanding that her cancer may return if she goes through with the pregnancy, and later, that she is likely to die while her daughter is still a small child. While being proactive about treatment and her diet, she also accepts her fate without rancor or anger.
Which brings me to the title of this post—shikata ga nai (or sometimes, shou ga nai). Literally, it means, “there is no way,” or more colloquially, “it can’t be helped.” I probably heard this phrase at least daily when I lived in Japan, applied to all sorts of situations—from a traffic jam in Tokyo to an earthquake to someone’s death, all of which were events that were not in an individual’s control. Certainly it has come to my mind often when I think about having cancer. Sometimes misinterpreted as passivity, “shikata ga nai” doesn’t really dictate that you do nothing—as Chie in the film demonstrates. It does mean an acceptance of the circumstances you have been dealt, without anger or self-pity.
I vividly recall a situation when I was working for Mazda that illustrates this latter point. I was interpreting a media interview for the then new President of the manufacturing company, who did not speak much English. He had been born and raised in Hiroshima, and was a small boy at the time of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Because Hiroshima was viewed as a target towards the end of the war, he, his mother and siblings had relocated to a nearby area in the country, but his father continued to work in the city. The father, like so many others, was killed in the bomb that was dropped on August 6, 1945. The reporter was very curious about my boss’s reaction to this, especially since he was now living and working in America. He wanted to know if he “resented” America or Americans or had been “angry” that he lost his father due to the bombing—certainly there were many in Flat Rock, Michigan, including the city’s mayor (who had a statue of Iwo Jima in his office) who had a hard time getting past the Japanese being our enemy in World War II. My boss replied simply, “No”—and used that well worn phrase, “shikata ga nai.” Then he added something I have never forgotten: “I was of course very sad that my father had died. But I was also grateful that my mother and my siblings still lived.”
I am not sure the degree to which this mentality—of acceptance of the things not in one’s control, without being consumed by anger and resentment—has penetrated my consciousness. I suspect it has to some degree. It is balanced—as it is in Japanese society as well–by another well known phrase, “gambaru”—to persevere, or to slog on through tough times. This Sunday’s New York Times magazine contained what may be viewed as an extreme example of that—the man who has been on more than 100 scuba dives in the attempt to locate the body of his wife, who died in the Sendai tsunami. Acceptance tempered with perseverance—it seems like a good formula.