Ikigai Explained by a Neuroscientist

Finding Your Life Purpose With Ikigai

In the video below, Ken Mogi explains the concept of ikigai and discusses it’s importance and value in today’s globally competitive world.

Ikigai Explained

What is ikigai, and why is it important?

There are many ways to define Ikigai. One way put it is to say that Ikigai is the reason you get up in the morning. It could be something very small like having a cup of coffee and a chocolate. And something that makes your day go on. That is Ikigai.

On the other hand – Ikigai can be a life-defining, very big goal, like going to Mars or winning the Nobel Prize or becoming the Prime Minister of a country. So Ikigai can be something small or something big. So in a nutshell, Ikigai is a spectrum. And the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself.

In order to be a master of Ikigai, you will really need to appreciate how complex and rich life actually is. The reason why we need Ikigai in this age is because people are under pressure because of globalisation. People are feeling that they have to succeed. Not in a, on the local scale – but also on the global scale too. That is a very high order. It’s a moonshot, an almost impossible moonshot.

Of course, it’s nice to search for your moonshot. But in order to do that, we really need to reflect on ourselves. We need to realise that whatever we do, wherever we are – we are actually made of all these small joys, small goals that we accomplish each and every day. So in order to reach your really big goals, you will really need to take care of the very small things that consist in your life.

The reason why Japan has nurtured this unique concept is because traditionally Japan has been a nation where they’re having multitudes of values. Famously, there are 8 million Gods in the Japanese Shinto system. Compared to one God in many religions in the world. So the Japanese have been accustomed to this idea that the world is made of many small things which are valuable in themselves. So there’s no one great book or testament which orders you to do something and what you must follow. And if you follow it, you’ll be happy, but otherwise, you’ll be doomed. That is not a  Japanese attitude.

I think Ikigai is actually a very democratic concept. And Ikigai is something that I think everybody would be very happy to know in order to compete in this very globalist economy. I mean I’m not saying that winning in the global competition is meaningless. I’m not saying that it’ll be nice if you win in the global competition, but that will be only a bonus. And the bonus will probably come if you take really good care of your Ikigai. That’s what I’m saying.

What steps can people take to find their own ikigai?

In a way, Ikigai is something really private. The owner of the world-famous sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Mr. Ono – he is very well known, but his Ikigai is something very private. I mean of course, the standards of Michelin guidebooks is something global. But the way to read them is something private. So you really need to find your own private way to reach a very universal goal.

In order to do that, you’ll really need to know yourself. And in order to know yourself from a neuroscience point of view, you need to have a mirror. Of course, you have a mirror in your bathroom, right? But the mirror I’m talking about here is in your brain. There are some neurons called the mirror neurons. And in the human brain, there is a system called “the mirror system,” which mirrors yourself, other people. It is only in the context of comparison with other people that you can get to know yourself.

So you really need other people, and the communication with other people, to know yourself. So it is very important to get to know people from various backgrounds. People with different personalities, different value systems. When you communicate with these people, you realise what kind of person you are. Then you can start to build on your own set of Ikigai. Your set of Ikigai is likely to be very different from the set of Ikigai of your neighbor, of your friends, or even your family or your loved ones.

So in order to know yourself and find what your set of Ikigai is, you really need to get to know people and see yourself reflected in the mirrors of their brains. The good thing is that in order to get to know yourself – you really need to get to know your neighbors and your friends. You really need to get to know many people.

The good thing is that getting to know people is in itself an Ikigai. So it’s a kind of a– How do you say that? Get to know your Ikigai through other the kind of Ikigai. That’s a really, really good cycle of cultivating the Ikigai.

Is ikigai relevant for a global audience?

I would say that the Japanese native speakers of Ikigai, if you ask an average Japanese person what your Ikigai is, he or she will answer immediately. But it’s quite likely that he or she wouldn’t realise that it is such an important concept globally. Because it is something natural, something that is in the air, something people take for granted. So yes, the Japanese are native speakers of Ikigai. But that doesn’t mean that they are the best performers or practitioners of Ikigai.

People from all over the world are getting to know and be interested in this concept of Ikigai. Like somebody who starts to get interested in something foreign or exotic, these people have a really good chance of perfection in Ikigai. They can practice Ikigai even better than the Japanese people, I think. The knack I think is to make the implicit explicit, make the unconscious conscious, because in any culture, Ikigai often comes as something unconsciously practised.

So I think it will be great if people all over the world – I mean, in different cultures – asked themselves, What are the things that secretly give them joy. Not these grand goals like founding a company and going to IPO and so on. These things will be great, but these are not necessarily your Ikigai. Ikigai is something that would probably be hidden in the really, really inner shrine of your heart, so to speak. So Ikigai is– finding your Ikigai is a process of self-reflection really.

But I think – for many people from all over the world. I mean, for many people outside of Japan, I think getting to know this very Japanese concept of Ikigai would provide a very unique opportunity to reflect on themselves. Because after all, people can get to realise what they are only through realising that they are different people from other people.

So I hope Ikigai will be a very good mirror for other people to reflect on themselves and find their life’s choice.

Ken Mogi, Finding Your Life Purpose with Ikigai, Globis Insights, Jul 19, 2018, accessed Jan 21st 2019, https://e.globis.jp/article/999/

ikigai explained

Ken Mogi is a neuroscientist, author and broadcaster based in Tokyo. He has published more than 30 papers on cognitive and neurosciences, and over 100 books in Japan covering popular science, essay, criticism and self-help. His books have sold close to 1 million copies. The Little Book of Ikigai is his first book in English.