The phrase “仕方ない” (shikata nai) is one that I learned very early in my Japanese studies and I’ve found it to be fairly commonly used, as well as pretty straightforward to understand.
The word 仕方 (shikata) means “way to do something” or “method”. For example, since お礼 means “thanks”, then お礼の仕方 means “the way to thank” or “the way to give thanks”. The ~方 (~kata) part is also used as a suffix to verbs in the pre-masu form to mean “the way of ~”. For example “食べ方” (tabekata) is “the way of eating” or “how to eat”, and 泳ぎ方 (oyogikata) is “how to swim”.
So, 仕方ない literally means “there is no way to do something”, and is often translated as “it can’t be helped”. Neither of these is a good natural translation (who actually says “it can’t be helped” anyway?) , but they get the point across.
Another way to explain it is that something is unpreventable. So you could say “仕方ないな” after you dropped your ice cream on the ground, since after all there is no way to go back in time and prevent dropping your tasty desert. Depending on the situation I might translate this line as “oh well”.
This phrase can also be used after a verb in the “te” form to show that “something can’t be helped” (another way to say this is the word 無駄 “muda”).
- He isn’t going to answer the phone anyway, so there is no use to calling him.
Here is another example.
- I really want to play a/the game no matter what.
My English translation is somewhat non-literal here, but the idea is that the speaker wants to play a game, and there is nothing that can be done about that urge.
Another interesting use of 仕方ない is when it is used to modify a noun:
- That guy is hopeless.
Here, the feeling of “nothing can be done” (about ‘that guy’) is retained, though the word “hopeless” is a better, albeit overused, way to express this concept in english.
There are actually a few expressions or variations of this one which basically mean the same thing (excepting a few subtle nuances differences):
- しょうがない [shou ga nai]
- しょうもない [shou mo nai]
- どうしようもない [dou shiyou mo nai]
- 仕様がない [shiyou ga nai]
- しゃあない [shaa nai] <= I’ve only heard this spoken, never seen it written
- 致し方ない [itashikata nai] <= politer version, not used that commonly