Could This Japanese Concept be The Secret to a Long, Happy, Meaningful Life?

The term ikigai refers to our reason to live and exist. That which gives some sort of meaning to our lives and why we are living here on earth.

Seen this way, it seems a concept easy enough to understand, although perhaps not the full answer, since the search for the ikigai is undoubtedly a profound internal analysis and that is usually not easy for any human being, Japanese and non-Japanese, because I believe that this is a global search in the human being, not specific to the Japanese being.

Why are people interested in Ikigai

So, why are there so many articles, books and studies on the subject published in Japan over the years? What is so special or different that the Japanese society needs so many studies to try to understand the ikigai? Let’s look more into it.

What’s your reason for getting up in the morning? Just trying to answer such a big question might make you want to crawl back into bed. If it does, the Japanese concept of ikigai could help.

Originating from a country with one of the world’s oldest populations, the idea is becoming popular outside of Japan as a way to live longer and better.

While there is no direct English translation, ikigai is thought to combine the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live”, and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for”. Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.

ikigai, the Japanese way of living with purpose

To find this reason or purpose, experts recommend starting with four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Finding the answers and a balance between these four areas could be a route to ikigai for Westerners looking for a quick interpretation of this philosophy. But in Japan, ikigai is a slower process and often has nothing to do with work or income.

In a 2010 survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women, just 31% of participants cited work as their ikigai.

Gordon Matthews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, told the Telegraph that how people understand ikigai can, in fact, often be mapped to two other Japanese ideas – ittaikan and jiko jitsugen. Itaikkan refers to “a sense of oneness with, or commitment to, a group or role”, while jiko jitsugen relates more to self-realization.

Matthews says that ikigai will likely lead to a better life “because you will have something to live for”, but warns against viewing ikigai as a lifestyle choice: “Ikigai is not something grand or extraordinary. It’s something pretty matter-of-fact.”

Okinawa, a remote island to the south west of Japan, has an unusually large population of centenarians and is often referred to in examinations of ikigai – though not by Gordon.

According to Dan Buettner, an expert on Blue Zones, the areas of the world where people live longest, the concept of ikigai pervades the life of these islanders. Combined with a particular diet and support network of friends or “moai”, ikigai is helping people live longer on Okinawa as it gives them purpose, he says, who provides a karate master, fisherman and great-great-great-grandmother, all of whom are more than 100 years old, as examples.

Just knowing what your ikigai is is not enough – all of these people put their purpose into action, Buettner explains in a BBC interview. Researchers stress that ikigai can change with age. For anyone whose work is their reason for living, this will come as a relief as they approach retirement and begin the search for a new ikigai.

Sometimes the difficult experiences can teach us something profound

After a strong earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the country on March 11, 2011, many Japanese people reconsidered their ikigai seriously, the search for ikigai “gives human beings the ability to integrate psychologically stressful events in the past, present and future with less confusion or conflict.

“This type of events (natural disasters, catastrophes, accidents …) gives us the opportunity to rethink important issues in life, such as the meaning of our life up to this present moment, the concept of happiness or even how we want to live from that moment, among others. Thus, ikigai is also an effective technique for dealing with post-traumatic stress situations in which we are offered the opportunity to rethink our life and its meaning.