How do we act when life gives us a situation that we feel is beyond our control? Humans repeatedly are forced to deal with such conditions. If we are mindful at these moments wisdom may emerge that will help us to know if we should accept what is happening or try to change it.
On February 19, 75 years ago, an executive order from President Roosevelt lead to the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. This moment in history is particularly resonant this year because of the recent executive order that banned people from certain countries from entering the United States. One way to remember the lessons of the Japanese American experience, which was called an injustice based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” is to reflect on how people responded at that time.
As a person of both Japanese and American roots and experiences, I remember by reflecting on my relationship with Kiyo Morimoto, a man who became a mentor for me at a critical time when I was trying to understand myself. His parents had come from Japan for a better life and he was born in the United States, growing up on a potato farm in Idaho. When war broke out in the Pacific he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became part of the celebrated 442nd regimental combat unit. For Kiyo, this was both a source of pride and sadness, because the horrors of war had inflicted wounds and scars that were always with him.
But in the days following the declaration of war, when Kiyo reflected deeply on who he was and what he was being called to do— committing himself to fight for his country—he struggled to understand the way his Japanese-born elders were responding to the situation. For them, the only choice was acceptance. He explained this to me with the Japanese saying, shikata ga nai, which literally means “there is no way to act,” that “nothing can be done.”Being young and full of hope and idealism, this response from his elders frustrated and angered him. He felt it was passive resignation and wondered how they could just give up rather than fight. But as he grew older he came to see it differently.
Shikata ga nai isn’t the same as passive resignation. It is a way of coping with the things in life that cannot be changed. It is a way of accepting and even embracing our vulnerability and helplessness. It is from this acceptance that we can free ourselves from the chains of victimization and claim the agency to move on.
Victor Frankl explained how he and others survived the Nazi death camps through a dramatic shift in their perspective on life—They shifted away from asking, “what do I want from life?” and shifted to: “what does life want from me?” Being unable to change their situation challenged them to change themselves. This concept is found in Japan in the indigenous therapy of Shoma Morita based on the life giving power of acceptance and therapeutic effect of accepting vulnerability, and the courage that arises in the act.
Shikata ga nai is a way for people to feel new energy that they can direct into creative and productive activities, and live with appreciation and gratitude rather than bitterness and regret. Kiyo spoke to this in a talk he gave at Harvard University:
“By recognizing and acknowledging where we are, we discover new possibilities and freedoms within the limits of the immediate context in which we find ourselves. The Issei, by owning and respecting their helplessness, directed their energy within the barrenness of the relocation centers, to grow and to nurture lovely flower and vegetable gardens; to write powerful poetry; and to create exquisite works of art. They knew that every day was a gift of life. For what is more precious than life? It is God’s gift to us, to be lived with dignity and with love.”
Today, I reflect on the way that some people decided that they could not fight the government and the best they could do was accept the incarceration and put positive energy into making the best of the situation. Men like Kiyo responded to the desperate situation by laying their lives on the line for “their country” and for their community. Some others responded by saying, “NO, NO,” resisting and protesting injustice by refusing to fight for their country. A few openly defied the government.
What I have learned is that each way of responding was courageous. The different ways of acting were based in each person’s reflection on who they were and what they were called to do, for their families, for the Japanese community, and for their country.
The challenge of shikata ga nai is to determine what cannot be changed and what can be changed. What does a person have to accept as unchangeable? How much agency, the ability to change a situation through one’s actions, does a person have? And how far is one willing to go, how much is one willing to sacrifice, to attempt to change things? Each person has to decide for themselves how to answer these difficult questions.
Responding to the hardships we face calls for courage. And with every courageous act of reflection, action, resistance, and expression that springs from the question: “What does life want from me?” we nourish the power of the human spirit so that it may thrive even through the most difficult situations.