IKIGAI – A Misunderstood Word

What is ikigai?

Ikigai is a greatly misunderstood concept outside of Japan. It’s not a word from Okinawa. It’s not a Japanese secret to longevity. It’s not an entrepreneurial Venn diagram framework. It is not the pursuit of a single life purpose. And it is not something all Japanese have. Most likely, the majority of your ikigai knowledge comprises Western misconceptions of this idea.

These misunderstandings have long been a source of personal frustration for me because of the intimate connection I have long had with Japan; having a Japanese family – with whom I lived in Japan – has given me profound insights into Japanese culture that I would never have experienced or appreciated had I lived in Japan only as a bachelor. These insights have been supplemented by my long-term study of the Japanese language and my close friendships with and observations of many Japanese people. By the end of this chapter, I hope to have imparted some of these insights to you so that you will have a more authentic understanding of this concept that will make you feel that life is worth living.

Before you read on, I ask you to let go of what you know about ikigai and start with a beginner’s mind, opening yourself up to all the possibilities ikigai has to offer. If you can let go of your preconceived notions about ikigai, it will make you receptive to a unique, multifaceted Japanese cultural concept that will make you feel that life is worth living. That's what ikigai is all about – living a life that feels meaningful and worthwhile. This is something that is important to understand now: More than anything, ikigai involves your feelings and emotions. It is not something you chase or achieve, but instead is something you feel.

On the first episode of my podcast, I interviewed one of Japan's leading ikigai researchers, clinical psychologist Professor Akihiro Hasegawa of Toyo Eiwa University. In our conversation, Hasegawa defined ikigai as ‘the feeling that one is alive here and now, and the individual awareness that drives him or her to survive.’1 Hasegawa also revealed that ikigai is about personal agency, stating that ‘it is important to feel that you have control over your life and that you have a sense that your life is moving forward.’2 Note, in both definitions, Hasegawa mentions the word feel.

Hasegawa’s advice for feeling ikigai is as follows: ‘Try to connect deeply with the people you care about in your relationships. And, take time to find the things in life that give you meaning, purpose, and joy in your day-to-day living.’

Let’s follow Hasegawa’s advice as we explore ikigai – which, despite its weighty definition, Hasegawa ironically states is not a special word.

Not a special word

Ikigai is a combination of two words: iki, meaning ‘living’, and gai, meaning ‘the value of’ or ‘worth’. Iki comes from the verb ikiru, which means ‘to live’. According to Hasegawa, it is crucial to understand what we mean by ‘life’. In Japanese, there are two words that can be translated in this way: jinsei, which means ‘lifetime’, and seikatsu, which means ‘everyday life.’ Hasegawa states that ‘The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu, so the word relates to finding meaning in life in your day-to-day living.’4

Ikigai is generally written as 生きがい, a compound of the verb, 生きる (ikiru), and がい (gai) . The kanji character 生, has multiple readings and meanings, but is generally associated with life or living things. The rest of the word is written with hiragana script, the basic syllabary of Japanese. The ‘gai’ of ikigai can also be written with kanji (Chinese characters) as 生き甲斐, with 甲, representing armour, carapace or shell and 斐, representing ornately patterned.

The origin of gai dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), which produced some of Japan’s finest art and is often referred to as the Golden Age of Japanese cultural history. A game played by the Heian aristocracy during this period was kai-awasei, which involved finding a match (‘awase’) between shells (‘kai’) – which were hand-decorated and thus highly prized. As only the wealthy could afford kaiawase shells, great value was associated with them, and the word kai came to mean value or worth.

While the etymology of the word is rich and fascinating, for Japanese, ikigai is not something grandiose or flamboyant like the shells it references. Although it seems like a word with so much importance and meaning should be considered special, it is actually used casually in conversation.

The Japanese language has many words for which this is true – terms like yutori, ibasho, and omoiyari that are intriguing to the outsider yet are considered ‘normal’ by Japanese themselves. We will take a look at these three words later in this book, but, for now, suffice it to say that you will maximise your experience and enjoyment if you approach the idea of ikigai casually, as Japanese do.

Another related linguistic point is that ikigai is one of a number of Japanese words that encapsulate a philosophy or a unique way of thinking that Japanese find difficult to articulate even though they intuitively understand it. One example is wabi-sabi, the aesthetic beauty of impermanent and incomplete things. Outside of Japan, wabi-sabi is understood as ‘imperfect beauty’ – a definition that would never be applied by Japanese.

Japanese will often avoid even attempting to translate concepts like these, knowing that these terms can’t be fully explained and that attempting to do so may limit one’s ability to sufficiently or appropriately engage with them. Most English descriptions of unique Japanese words like wabi-sabi or ikigai are one person’s best attempt to convey their own unique understanding of a complex and highly personal concept. The results are often vague, frustrating, or disappointing. In the case of ikigai specifically, most Japanese would indicate that it is something they feel rather than talk about; if they do discuss it, they discuss it in the same nonchalant way as they might discuss their hobbies – and, for many Japanese, their ikigai is their hobby, which may make the concept seem not all that unique or special.

What you can learn from this is that you should let go of a desire for exact definitions and instead embrace the idea of having long discussions on these concepts to understand their ambiguity, and acknowledge that they are cultural, unique and personal, and therefore cumulatively multifaceted. If you can do this, you open yourself up to a world of learning about the various nuanced interpretations of, and approaches to, ikigai – and about the Japanese language in general, which features many words that hold a deep and philosophical meaning yet are used in everyday conversation.

Understanding that ikigai is not a special word allows us to approach it like the Japanese do – without a sense of pressure. Japanese people don't view ikigai as a lofty goal, a destination, or something to achieve. While I am hesitant to use words like ‘hack’ or ‘secret’, I do feel that the secret to feeling ikigai is to approach it casually. Rather than thinking that ikigai is an entrepreneurial goal to achieve or an idyllic island lifestyle that will enable us to live a long and happy life, appreciating this casual and more inclusive approach will provide us with more opportunities to feel ikigai in our life.

Speaking of an idyllic island lifestyle, let's now visit Okinawa.

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