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What To Expect When You're Expecting (A Ballistic Missile)

By Dan Hamamura | Think Pieces | January 19, 2018 |

By Dan Hamamura | Think Pieces | January 19, 2018 |


There is a Japanese phrase, shikata ga nai, which roughly translates to “it cannot be helped.” Conceptually, this refers to an understanding and acceptance that there are things, including those that can cause pain and suffering, that are fundamentally out of your control.

While it’s sometimes viewed, particularly here in America where ANYTHING IS POSSIBLLLLLLLLE, as a weak, complacent mentality, I’ve never seen it that way; at its most extreme, certainly, such an attitude could lead to apathy and inaction, but shikata ga nai is less about whether you take action, and more an understanding that the outcome of an event is not always (or ever, really) entirely in your control.

So a week ago, when Hawaii (which is where I grew up) woke up to a false ballistic missile alert, as terrifying and emotionally draining as it was, it was perhaps the first time I saw the true power of this concept, which, thanks to the significant Japanese-American population, is at least a small part of the local culture.

This isn’t to say that people didn’t panic or worry or think about their lives and wonder about the end, because of course they did. That’s an understandable, reasonable reaction to a loud, terrifying emergency system text that plainly says BALLISTIC MISSILE and THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

But several of my friends and family were able to handle themselves with a calm poise that I hope I would be able to emulate (but also, you know, hope none of us ever have to test practically). The parents of one friend (who, like me, now lives on the mainland) sent him a text, telling him good luck and not to worry — even if this was it, they had a good run. Another friend of mine who still lives in Hawaii was naturally worried, but also allowed himself to look on the bright side: at least he didn’t have to take his daughter to ballet class (a fate he was resigned to once it was clear the alert was false).

Then there’s my own father, who did exactly what he was supposed to do — after receiving the alert on his phone, he closed the doors and windows, and monitored the news. But when it was clear that the radio and TV weren’t sounding the alarm, he was skeptical that the alert was accurate. He was able to confirm his suspicions a few minutes later, when he saw on Twitter that it was a false alarm, meaning he was, at least, not worried for the entire thirty-eight minutes that elapsed between the original warning and the second text message.

He remained so calm, in fact, that he continued about his morning as normal — which means he didn’t text or call his children, because he saw no point in worrying us unnecessarily, a frustrating family trait that goes back at least a few generations.

(My grandfather once had a fairly major heart attack, but when he was taken to the hospital, he refused to call any of his children for hours, because he felt there was no need to worry them. He had quadruple bypass surgery the next day. If we had a family crest, you can bet the fancy latin motto at the bottom would have something to do with keeping your trap shut about terrible news.)

Since Saturday, we’ve learned a bit more about what went wrong at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and with the warning system. In particular, we’ve learned that it was a number of factors that contributed to the communication breakdown: human error, a system built with a possible single point of failure, and, of course, a user interface which looks vaguely like baby’s first Geocities page from 1995:

The political fallout, of course, will continue, as will the questions and the investigations and, eventually, the solutions, because this is too important to not fix, and there are steps that can be taken to minimize the chance of another mistake.

But also, life goes on, and returns to normal, or at least as close to normal as possible. Most have quickly returned to the routine of their lives, but with last weekend’s false alarm in the back of their minds, a fresh reminder of the absurdity of life, of the many things that are out of our control, that there are some things that just cannot be helped.

It’s heartening to see that instead of being paralyzed by that helplessness, it is instead seen as a freedom to continue, to keep moving forward, and to get back to what’s important, like spending time with family, and going to ballet classes, and withholding important life details from immediate family members so they don’t worry, because of course that’s a totally normal thing to do.

Sorry. Like they say. Shikata ga nai.

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Dan is the Comedy Editor and Podjiba Host. You can listen to him scream into the void on Twitter, or listen to him host the weekly TV podcast Podjiba.