Chanto – Doing Things Properly

In episode 20 of the Ikigai Podcast, Dr Iza Kavedžija, Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and author of the book Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Ageing Japan, recounted her experience of volunteering for an NGO at a community café in the south of Osaka.

As part of her doctoral research on the construction of meaning in life and the experience of ageing among older people in Osaka, Kavedžija spent 14 months visiting the same group of elderly people and observing their relationships and interactions at a community café. 

Chanto Suru

When Kavedžija started working at the café, she was quickly instructed on how to serve a cup of coffee or tea with great attention and care – a practice so precise it included placing the teaspoon at a particular angle on the tea plate. What was overwhelming at first became a practice of purpose, a form of mastery. This is an example of what the Japanese call chanto suru – ‘doing things properly’ – and it is something I have observed and appreciated on countless occasions during my time in Japan. 

Doing things properly

On the podcast, Kavedžija shared:

‘...the better you become at it, the more second nature it becomes and of course, the easier it gets and more enjoyable one can get out of it; anything you're doing well, you can get a sense of enjoyment from it.

So there's this sense that in every sphere of life, one can do things properly, one can water the flowers properly, one can put out the rubbish properly. As I'm sure anyone who's been to Japan will realise that there are 17 types of rubbish depending on which municipality you are in but sorting the rubbish is a complicated process, but doing it properly gives you a sense of getting things done well. 

There's something really interesting about how this then plays out, that if you are doing something masterfully, really well, whether that be a complex activity, such as calligraphy, or whether it be something very mundane, you have to attend to what you're doing and in doing that, I think one has very little space to be concerned or think about worries about the future.’


What Kavedžija is describing is shimei-kan, a sense of purpose. While this certainly does not mean you can (or need to) find purpose in everything you do, you can certainly approach your day-to-day tasks with an attitude of chanto, focusing on giving your best effort in the present rather than being distracted by worries about the future or regrets from the past; simply immerse yourself in the moment and enjoy the satisfaction that results from acting with intentionality – with purpose.

As you approach each successive task this way, you can feel your sense of purpose accumulating throughout the day – and perhaps even feel that you are moving towards self-improvement or self-actualization. 

There is also a compound benefit associated with the positive impact that this approach has on others: By doing things properly, as Kavedžija did when serving tea, you have an opportunity to serve the greater good by creating a pleasant, positive environment and demonstrating to others that they are worth your time and effort. 

The importance of doing things properly

The importance of doing things properly is understood in Japan. I learned from Japanese culture that if we're going to do things, no matter how small they are, we should do them properly. When we have done something properly our mind is free to move on. When we don’t do something properly we have to deal with uncertainty and the possibility that we may have to return to the task again. Depending on the context or situation, dismissing small tasks as unimportant could potentially result in devastating consequences.

The management of Tokyo’s various rail systems is an example of things being done properly on a large collective scale. Taking a train in Tokyo for the first time is quite the spectacle. You are likely to to see the platform conductor with white gloves on, red flag in hand at the ready, sweeping his whole arm as he points along and scans the edge of the platform, calling out various visual checks to ensure that nothing and nobody has fallen onto the tracks seconds before the arrival of the train. Before the train departs, he will go through a similar procedure, again extending his whole arm and pointing with his hand to confirm visual checks while calling them out to ensure the train can safely depart. He will go through a similar procedure yet again to confirm the platform is clear immediately after the train has departed. These three safety checks are done in the space of a few minutes to ensure no passengers get hurt and that the train arrives and departs on time.

And if you happen to get on the front carriage of a train, you are likely to see the driver point to and call out train signals multiple times between station stops. This is done to ensure that the status of signals is being read properly, to facilitate the smooth running of the train, and prevent any potential accidents. Now imagine thousands of rail workers doing this over and over again all day as they shuffle over 8 million people daily between train stations, with not one conductor or train driver missing a single safety check. Pointing and calling helps rail workers fully concentrate on each task of their jobs to ensure passenger safety and the efficient running of train lines.

As indicated above, one of the defining features of chanto  is the impact it has not just on yourself but also on those on the receiving end or your actions. This is another reminder that purpose is not solely related to you and your personal achievements; it is a social endeavour that you can express in the relationships you have with others through your various social roles.