Ikigai ni Tsuite – 生きがいについて- Mieko Kamiya

Ikigai ni Tsuite is the title of Mieko Kamiya's seminal book in which she shared her model of ikigai. Her book is still considered a standard reference by contemporary Japanese researchers, professors, and psychologists, despite it being published over a half-century ago, in 1966.

“It seems that the word ikigai exists only in the Japanese language. The fact that this word exists should indicate that the goal to live, its meaning and value within the daily life of the Japanese soul has been problematized. (...) According to the dictionary, ikigai means "power necessary for one to live in this world, happiness to be alive, benefit, effectiveness." When we try to translate it into English, German, French etc, it seems that there is no other way to define it other than "worth living" or "value or meaning to live". Thus, compared to philosophical theoretical concepts, the word ikigai shows us how much the Japanese language is ambiguous, but because of this it has an effect of reverberation and amplitude.”- MiekoKamiya

This translated quote comes from the first opening paragraph of the book. In her book, Ikigai ni Tsuite, Kamiya described ikigai as a type of happiness, but with an essential element of feeling that your life is moving forward. She wrote that we feel ikigai the most when the things we most want to do in life are also our obligations or duties. And the most honest aspect of our ikigai are our feelings.

On the Meaning of Life

In Japanese, tsuite means ‘about; concerning; as to; regarding’, so a literal translation of Kamiya’s book is About Ikigai – but a more poetic translation is On the Meaning of Life or What Makes Life Worth Living.

In the introduction of her book, Mieko Kamiya presents the theme that there is suffering, with people all over the world dreading the thought and the act of waking up every morning.6 She then prompts the reader to consider two questions:

  • What makes us feel that life is worth living each and every day?
  • How do we find a new ikigai if we have lost our reason to live?

From her surveys of leprosy patients, Kamiya discovered that existential suffering was caused by feeling insignificant. This was a pattern that also emerged from her review of research on atomic bomb survivors, people with terminal illnesses, death row inmates and the bereaved. In fact, Kamiya believed that the problems lepers had were merely the same problems all human beings had, but expressed in a unique form.

Kamiya wrote that there is no ready-made answer to the question of what makes a person's life worth living, and that her book was not intended to impose any such answer on anyone. For Kamiya, her book was her way to explore the elusive concept of ikigai from various angles in the hope of getting as close as possible to the truth of what makes life worth living.  What she did discover was that emotions were the most genuine aspect of ikigai. This realisation led to her unique definition of ikigai.

Ikigai and ikigai-kan

In her book, Kamiya provides a two-part definition of ikigai – her most recognised contribution to ikigai literature:

‘There are two ways of using the word ikigai. When someone says "this child is my ikigai," it refers to the source or target of ikigai, and when one feels ikigai as a state of mind. The latter of these is close to what Frankl calls "sense of meaning". Here I will tentatively call it "ikigai-kan" to distinguish it from the former "ikigai".’

The word ikigai, in other words, indicates the sources of meaning in your life: experiences, people, relationships, dreams, hobbies, and even memories that make your life worth living. Ikigai-kan, on the other hand, represents the emotions and feelings that these sources provide you that make you feel that life is worth living.

Taking the example Kamiya uses in her book, as a father, I can identify that my son is a source of ikigai, giving me ikigai-kan feelings of love, joy, pride, hope and connection, as well as a sense of purpose in my role as a father.

According to Kamiya, the power of ikigai lies in the positive and satisfying emotions that result from being able to identify your sources of ikigai and, subsequently, experience a deep and genuine sense of meaning associated with your existence.

As journalist Yoko Inoue shared with me, ikigai-kan is more than just a feeling of happiness:

‘Kamiya says that this ikigai-kan is similar to the meaning of life by Viktor Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning. So in her book, About Ikigai, she actually discussed what ikigai-kan is. Kamiya wrote that this sense of ikigai, compared to a sense of happiness, has a clearer sense of attitude towards the future. Also it is closer to the sense of oneself and strongly linked with one’s personal values. 

It means if there are hopes and goals in the future, no matter what the current situation is, you can feel ikigai on the way to getting there. If you're pursuing something only you can do, then this sense of fulfilment becomes even stronger.'


Upon completing the first draft of her book, Ikigai-ni-Tsuite, she wrote in her diary:

“At last this is the last day of the summer vacation. While making preparations for the resumption of classes, I looked back over this summer in which I was completely absorbed in writing my book. As my writing progressed over the summer, it became more and more evident that this was my most important task. I could almost say that I had been living just to write this book. What surprise, joy, and awe I felt as I gradually came to discover that. I had never even really imagined the possibility that the meaning of my life would someday be gradually revealed to me in this way.”

These words show her ikigai was indeed writing. It was far more important to her than her work as a doctor and gave her great satisfaction.