The Cultural Appropriation of Ikigai

Everyday on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Medium hundreds of users unwittingly post, share, like and promote a Japanese concept that has been appropriated - Ikigai. If you are reading this then most  likely you have seen the Venn diagram below.

ikigai cultural appropriation

Indeed the Venn diagram is seductive as it appeals to our ego. I’m sure without my intimate connection to Japan I would have fallen for it. We feel good about sharing things that inspire us. This is the case with the ikigai Venn diagram. And, I know the intentions of most people sharing the Venn diagram are good.

Yet, the misuse of ikigai points an ignorant attitude where we assume we can understand a cultural concept in a sentence or in this case with a framework, not fact check concepts, or not even brother to speak to and learn from the people that the cultural concept belongs to. This behaviour happens all too often.

I know not all readers will agree with me on this and may argue that everything is open to opinion, that there are no right or wrong answers, and that the popularity of the Venn diagram validates it as evolution of the concept. Indeed these statements have all been shared with me as has the question; “Why does it matter if it is not accurate if it is helping people”?

Why Does It Matter?

Perhaps we should consider the opinions of the people to which the concept is most culturally significant. Two Japanese friends of mine shared with me their experiences of discovering the ikigai Venn diagram. 

‘I remember freezing, I was just so shocked, to be honest. Because I was so surprised that I saw this concept [ the Venn diagram]. It was more of such pain in my soul. I think that's the best way I could describe it. Such sadness from my heart, because ikigai is such a beautiful concept, and it's so nuanced.’
“So I was attending a conference virtually and the speaker started out with “What's your ikigai?” And it was about a career path in tech if I remember correctly, and I saw the Venn diagram, and it really bothered me, particularly the part about money. I was so unsettled by it that I kept ruminating on it for days. It was extremely hard to let go.”

Ken Mogi's Perspective

We can also consider the perspective of Japanese neuroscience and author of the Little book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi shared his opinion of the Venn diagram on his Youtube Channel.

"Of course, for the western readership, probably this diagram is useful in structuring what motivates you and what gives you pleasure, and so on. But this diagram is very strange because it defines ikigai as the intersection of all these things, what you love, what the world needs and what you can be paid for, and what you are good at, and ikigai is defined as the intersection of all these things.

That would be great if you can do something that satisfies all these requirements. But that is too narrow of a definition for ikigai. Because if you believe in this diagram, then what you love, but for what you cannot be paid for, for example, your hobby, is not ikigai, right? That's really rubbish.

Ikigai is a really wide spectrum of things that you love to do; you enjoy doing. And it's something private. Of course, it can be something public, it can be something vocational. But you know, it can be your really personal hobby -- and that is your ikigai. That's the beauty of this Japanese concept, ikigai.

I hope you will be able to update your ideas about ikigai. As I said, this diagram is useful in some contexts, and it will be useful in the western context, in particular, but ultimately, it's completely wrong.’

The Misuse of Ikigai

Again I acknowledge most people are sharing the Venn diagram with the best of intentions, yet there are users who are well aware that the Venn diagram is not accurate and still continue to use it to promote themselves, their services and business.

Their blatant misuse of the concept is self serving to the extreme. Examples include, LinkedIn users proclaiming  and promoting themselves as experts on the concept, and then there are the pseudo-intellectuals appropriating the word to the point of using it to describe themselves on their profile - "the ikigai guy". Posting regularly on the subject, they offer little insight or culturally accurate information on the concept. On the occasion that they do, they often fail to cite or be completely transparent about the origin of their content, presenting as if it is their own. This happens to Ken Mogi’s 5  Pillars of Ikigai all too often.

The misuse of ikigai of course isn’t just limited to social media. Its misinterpretation is shared by thousands of websites and personal blogs often to promote services and products. Taking advantage of the longevity link there are companies selling ikigai weight loss pills and beauty products.

Recently the name ikigai is being used as names for venture capital firms, investment companies, financial services and even a crypto currency. The one thing Japanese people will stress about ikigai is that it is not something you make money from. 

Like it or not, the fact that this misuse has been caused by, and is perpetuated by, Westerners is textbook cultural appropriation.

Wabi-sabi & Kintsugi

Like ikigai, other Japanese words, such as wabi-sabi and kintsugi are being appropriated due to a short sightedness and a lack of respect for these words. 

Wabi-sabi

Wabisabi is now a word more associated with interior design than its actual meaning. Wabi-sabi is not an adjective to describe artwork or furniture as being ‘imperfectly beautiful’. It can’t be made or manufactured. 

Wabi-sabi is a noun that articulates an aesthetic that you can sense when observing the transience and/or impermanence of nature. This aesthetic sense can be experienced when viewing certain art pieces, notably traditional Japanese pottery, that utilise nature’s raw elements: earth, water andfire, in their creation process.

Kintsugi

As for kintsugi, the craft of repairing pottery with a lacquer mixed with gold, it is now common to find “kintsugi styled” pottery for sale online, where pottery pieces are designed to appear to have been broken, or have been intentionally broken, then repaired with 'kintsugi technique'. This cheap commercialisation is an insult to a centuries-old craft in particular and Japanese culture in general.

Respecting 

In Japan, there is a common myth called kotodama; the spirit of language, where koto means 'word' and dama means 'spirit'. Some Japanese believe that divine power resides in Japanese words. This belief originates in ancient times as part of the indigenous Shintoist religion but kotodama has survived through Japanese history and the term is still frequently mentioned in public discourse.

Perhaps we could embrace this concept of kotodama and respect the language and words of other cultures. Instead of seeking to use these words for personal advantage, we could take the time and make the effort to understand the culture and perspective of the people where these words originate from.

Moving To Cultural Appreciation

As you now understand, to the Japanese, positioning ikigai in the centre of the Venn diagram is a blatant misuse of a word that has important cultural significance. Like it or not, the fact that this misuse has been caused by, and is perpetuated by, Westerners is textbook cultural appropriation. This is not to suggest that I am pointing fingers, but to highlight a Western behaviour that often goes unchecked. 

One of my personal goals in writing my book, IKIGAI-KAN: feel a Life Worth Living, is to return this beautiful concept back to its original cultural context and move readers, who are familiar with or use the Venn diagram, from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I hope this is part of the reason why you have this book in your hands.

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