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For years I have been saying それが人生{じんせい} in Japanese to mean "such is life" / "c'est la vie". In fact English has a few other ways to express the same thing, and so do the other European languages I am familiar with.

Well my Japanese friends and acquaintances always understood, seemed to enjoy it, and never corrected me.

On my current trip to Japan I also learned 仕様{しよう}が無{な}い as having a similar meaning, perhaps literally more like "it can't be helped".

But only this morning for the first time have I been told that the first one is not actually a set phrase in Japanese, that it's merely the literal translation of the English (or French) phrase into Japanese.

So is it true that only 仕様が無い is used in idiomatic Japanese or is it just that the person who corrected me just isn't used to それが人生 even though other people in other parts of Japan, or people of other generations, might use it in their normal speech?

And what about other ways to express this sentiment? Since I originally asked this question people have added other variants in comments:

  • 世の中はそんなもんだ
  • 人生ってそんなもんだよ

Is one any more idiomatic, natural, Japanese-sounding? Is this a sentiment Japanese actually express at all?

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Maybe you should use: 世の中はそんなもんだ ("That is the way of the world.") ? –  Tim Mar 17 at 8:13
「人生ってそんなもんだよ」とかも言うよね –  Ash Mar 17 at 9:48
I'm positive I cannot answer this question, but I also wonder ... what would a correct answer even look like? The only thought I had was if there was an ngram like resource to look up uses. –  virmaior May 7 at 4:24
@virmaior: I suppose it would look at least a little like the answer that Tokyo Nagoya just deleted. There's a sentiment that can be expressed many ways. Some would be literal translations from other languages that native speakers would understand but seldom use, others would be favoured by native speakers whether or not they translate literally into something speakers of other languages would use or recognize. (Idiomatic etc.) –  hippietrail May 7 at 4:28
It sounds like you are asking if それが人生 is an "expression characteristic" of Japanese used at the native level and if not what is? Maybe you should edit your question to reflect this more clearly? –  virmaior May 8 at 8:51

1 Answer 1

「それが人生」, while everyone will understand it, does sound pretty "translated". You will probably hear it more often in fiction than in real life.

Thing is 「人生」 is a bigger word for us than "life" is for you. When we talk about an "everyday" kind of life, we use 「[生活]{せいかつ}」 or 「[暮]{く}らし」, not 「人生」. 「人生」 sounds more long-term and philosophical, which is why 「それが人生」 sounds a little too dramatic and/or profound for everyday use.

For everyday use, 「しようがない」 or 「しかたがない」 would sound much more natural.

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I think the tone point is why "それが人生*さ*" is such a popular formulation of the phrase (I would have guessed it was the canonical one) -- helps the speaker signal non-pomposity. –  Matt May 8 at 4:38

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