The Secret of Okinawa … 生き甲斐 [ikigai] … finding a more purposeful approach to work and life
August 30, 2017
Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced “ick-ee-guy”) is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.”
Everyone, according to Japanese culture, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self.
What if answering one question could improve people’s lives? Okinawa, a remote island to the south west of Japan, has an unusually large population of centenarians. One of their secrets is often said to be “ikigai”.
As this beautiful Nescafe ad puts it, ikigai means the reason for which you wake up in the morning:
So what’s your reason for getting up in the morning? What’s your motivation when you get to work each day? And your inspiration to do better, do more, and move forwards?
Ikigai comes 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 realisation 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 also has historic links: gai originates from the word kai, which means shell. These were considered very valuable during the Heian period (794 to 1185), according to Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University, adding a sense of “value in living”.
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.”
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.
But knowing what your ikigai is not enough – all of these people put their purpose into action, says Buettner. 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.
- What is your ikigai?
- This Japanese doctor lived to 105
- Genes vs lifestyle: what’s the key to longevity?
- 9 lessons from the world’s Blue Zones on living a long, healthy life
- Finding your ikigai: the Japanese secret to health and happiness