Follow the Japanese philosophy of ikigai and lead a happy life


By LEESAN

The columnist met this group of senior citizens in Okinawa who are so happy and healthy – their secret is to live an ikigai life every day. — Photos: LEESAN

The most blissful thing that could ever happen to any human is being healthy and happy. To wake up in the morning full of energy, and get a brilliant start to the new day with a splendid mood that’s full of “oommph”.

Life is so wonderful and meaningful, and this gives our daily lives a powerful push and inspiration, to get to work on time and start a productive day. Every day can be so exciting and meaningful.

This is the essence of the Japanese philosophy of “ikigai”.

Ikigai is a unique Japanese terminology that originated during the Heian period, in the year 794. The word can be split into two parts: “iki” which means life and existence, and “gai” which denotes value and meaning. When you put them together – ikigai – can be explained as “the meaning of life and existence”, or “the core value of existence”.

As a matter of fact, it also embodies the passion, sense of mission, value, and satisfaction for life, as well as realisation of the meaning of life, and the subsequent resolute mental state of accomplishing ones goals in life.

One of Japan’s leading researchers on ikigai, clinical psychologist and a professor at Toyo Eiwa University Akihiro Hasegawa, said that ikigai can also be interpreted as an integrated concept that puts together all values in life.

Let me put this in simpler terms: Be positive and live your life with a positive mentality.

Yamagata tourist train – Flower Lines – station chief Junsan (left), and the writer’s travelmate Michael Ong, who is 71, are such happy-go-lucky men who are living life to the fullest!Yamagata tourist train – Flower Lines – station chief Junsan (left), and the writer’s travelmate Michael Ong, who is 71, are such happy-go-lucky men who are living life to the fullest!

The Japanese ikigai belief has nothing to do with income and material gain, and is neither restricted to any particular lifestyle or thing, but is an open-minded attitude towards life, always having empathy not only for ourselves and other people, but also on all things. This is in hopes of making our day-to-day lives more meaningful, extraordinary, and joyful.

Mieko Kamiya, another Japanese psychiatrist who is said to be the “mother of ikigai” philosophy, explained ikigai as being somewhat similar to happiness, but with a few differences. Ikigai will make you yearn for a brighter future even when you are downright desolate or helpless, making it hard for you to give up your dreams and hopes.

The Japanese believe that even the smallest joys in life will nourish us, and make life more fulfilling, positive, and complete.

From my personal experiences interacting with the Japanese over the last three decades, as well as my immersive participation in Japanese culture, I have discovered that they draw their inspiration of life from their existential value in the eyes of other people, and not a philistine kind of perception.

For example, the Japanese are tremendously grateful for the respect they receive from colleagues, friends, and relatives, and this speaks volumes of the reality that team value prevails over personal value in Japanese society. To them, the word “value” transcends “self” to a three-dimensional attitude encompassing depth, height, and thickness.

Such a sacrificial spirit typically exists as a common trait in ikigai, making people particularly hardworking, dynamic, and ready to help others.

It is therefore not difficult to understand that ikigai can be a positive transformation you bring to other people’s life because of the work you have carried out.

This is kind of like how I look forward to and appreciate all the responses and even criticisms I get from presenting my viewpoints in columns like this one.

There’s another prevailing phenomenon in Japanese society called the “senpai”, or people who are more senior – not just in age but in experience too – than us. Such a social hierarchy happens not only at work or school, but everywhere; seniors are invariably held in very high esteem by the juniors.

At the same time, seniors will feel that they have a responsibility to pass down their knowledge to the younger generation. As such, they will never feel that they have gotten too “old”, and are therefore of little value to society. In fact, seniors live their lives to the fullest, and even think that passing down their knowledge to the younger generation is the ultimate goal. This is what we call the ikigai philosophy of life.

The people in Okinawa, known for their long life, understand that the so-called value of life is living a truly meaningful one. Because of that, they have managed to live long, and joyfully.

Friends around me would occasionally tell me that they are depressed and suffer from sleeplessness during the pandemic. Some felt helpless and even indifferent to things around them. Business owners, meanwhile, would tell me that the cost of raw materials have gone up, and that salary expenses are over 30% higher now. Even though they could sell their products or services at higher prices, they know that doing so will make most consumers suffer.

Some of us discovered that not all workers are happy because of the pay rise. In fact, some seem to have more to grumble about nowadays. Could this be their response to intolerable stress and pressure? It seems to be the answer, and I believe that this is happening because they are suffering from an imbalance in life, so much so that they don’t feel joy any more despite material gains.

Seeking Ikigai in life could constitute a life-long mission. In order to better understand the core value of our existence, we will have to keep exploring what is beneficial to us and what deserves our full devotion, while avoiding thoughts that might distract us. Ikigai provides a core belief that will consolidate our value system vis-a-vis individual core values, such that we will gain happiness and balance in life in the process.

There is no single term in English that can define ikigai, but we can always list our strengths, all the things we love to do, our passion, knowledge, missions, duties and value systems. Where all these circles overlap, that is Ikigai.There is no single term in English that can define ikigai, but we can always list our strengths, all the things we love to do, our passion, knowledge, missions, duties and value systems. Where all these circles overlap, that is Ikigai.

Do you think we should all reconsider our next step in life, and how we should command the meaning of our current jobs and handle the maddening tempo of life?

Whether we choose to “live to eat” or “eat to live”, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with living a fast-paced life or a slow one. The key is, we must keep focusing, improving, and thus lifting our quality of life.

It is said that we all become small in a world full of unpredictability. Life is short, so let us cherish every moment we share with everyone. In this new year, let’s embrace a selfless attitude and forge ahead fearlessly in the spirit of ikigai.

PS: This was written during a 26-hour flight from New York to Kuala Lumpur via Taipei, where I referred to several books on ikigai, and added my views. I hope that in 2024, we will all live our lives to the fullest, and with endless excitement!

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.


Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

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