Tanoshimi – What do you have to look forward to?

In 1995, I was one of four students from my college to be awarded a one-year traineeship to Tokyo to study cooking and restaurant management. I worked at an izakaya – a lively bar-style restaurant, similar to a tapas bar, that serves various dishes and snacks. The word is made up of the three characters 居酒屋 i-zaka-ya, which translate to ‘stay-alcohol-restaurant’. My kind of place.

One expression I quickly picked up from my Japanese co-workers was tanoshimi, a commonly used word that translates to ‘to look forward to with anticipation’. It is usually said in relation to future leisure activities, and is also understood as enjoyment, amusement, or hobby.

I was surprised at how often I would hear this word. Even though my Japanese friends sometimes used it in relation to future events that did not seem all that special to me, I still found that hearing it and saying tanoshimi always made me feel good.

In fact, I fell in love with the word and found myself saying it often; life was exciting at that time in Japan and I had many things to look forward to. Tanoshimi remains one of my favourite Japanese expressions.

A Bright Future

It is not just a delightful turn of phrase, but also a helpful way of acting on Mieko Kamiya’s advice about focusing on a bright future. To achieve ikigai, Kamiya advocates a mindset that allows you to walk into the future with the expectation and enthusiasm that everything is yet to come – no matter what has happened in the past and no matter how difficult the present is.

The real-world implications of this approach were recently studied in the aftermath of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami (2011) by leisure experts Dr Shintaro Kono (a regular guest on the Ikigai Tribe podcast) and Dr Kimberly Shinew. Their study found that the expression tanoshimi is used as a coping mechanism – giving the speaker a sense of hope and the opportunity to feel that they can explore a new purpose in life in the future: 

‘…some tanoshimi, both actual and expected, provided long-term goals for the survivors. For instance, Takashi, who was a competitive marathon runner before the disaster, said, “There are two goals in my life now: restoring my home and running a marathon again.” For Matsuyo, a participant in the garden reconstruction project, it was gardening that brought back a long-term perspective to her post-disaster life: “I enjoy gardening. I hope flowers will flourish more from now on. I’m looking forward to it. . . . When I go to a gardening store, I wonder how our garden will look like if I plant this flower.” Thus, tanoshimi provided opportunities to find something to look forward to, which in turn provided new purpose in life.’

Anticipatory Pleasure

Tanoshimi can be understood as anticipatory pleasure – something to look forward to, such as a hug from someone you love, tomorrow morning’s cup of coffee or tea, the excited tail-wagging greeting from your dog when you return home, an upcoming movie, a future holiday, or the opportunity to help others.

Recognizing the potential of these future events – whether small or large – helps you to feel grateful for these activities and enjoy both looking forward to them and experiencing them in the moment.  

The simple act of recognising what I have to look forward to has become a weekly practice of mine. I will scan my calendar and highlight the activities and events that I know I’ll enjoy. For me, it is catching up with old friends and touching base with my Ikigai Tribe members on my weekly mastermind calls.

As these examples suggest, tanoshimi is often associated with people. Indeed, the interactions we have with others – and our roles and relationships more generally – can help us feel positive about the future, and can be an important source of ikigai-kan.