Mieko Kamiya – The Mother of Ikigai Psychology

Where are all the mothers?

When we think of great philosophers, names such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle come to mind. In psychology, pioneers include Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and Sigmund Freud. In the field of positive psychology, Abraham Maslow, Martin Seligman, and Christopher Peterson are considered founding fathers. One name that should be added to shake up this all-boys club is Mieko Kamiya, whose research on ikigai spans all of these fields. I like to think of her as the Mother of Ikigai. 

Mieko Kamiya

Kamiya Mieko

Kamiya was one of the first academics to extensively study ikigai. Her seminal book, Ikigai-ni-Tsuite (About Ikigai), is still considered a standard reference by contemporary Japanese researchers, professors, and psychologists, despite it being published over a half-century ago, in 1966.

For Kamiya Mieko, writing was her ikigai. It was a lifelong ambition of hers to write, and one she was unable to pursue until the later years of her life. 

Unfortunately, her book is yet to be translated into English. Even more unfortunate is that Kamiya died at the ripe young age of 65 on 22 October 1979. Thankfully, Kamiya kept a diary, which has been published, giving us the opportunity to explore her most intimate and deepest thoughts.

A diary entry from 14 January 1960 gives a glimpse into her thoughts:

‘I was again absorbed in writing Ikigai at night. As I was overflowing with ideas, I played quiet pieces on the piano for one hour partly to make my children fall asleep and partly to calm myself. What a moving experience it is that I can use all my past experiences and studies to create a unified whole through my writing!’

Kamiya was a woman of many roles and talents. Not only was she a doctor, psychiatrist, author, and translator, but also a hardworking housewife and a mother to two children. She spoke and taught several foreign languages including, French and English. As a translator, she translated Meditations of Marcus Aurelius into Japanese. She taught psychiatry at several Japanese universities and was also a private tutor to Princess Mishiko, who served as the Empress consort of Japan until 2019.

Born on 12 January 1914, in Okayama prefecture, Kamiya had an unconventional childhood. The daughter of a diplomat, she lived in Geneva, Switzerland during her early teenage years and became fluent in French. She also became fluent in English before moving to America to study classical Greek at Columbia University. The outbreak of World War II precipitated her return to Tokyo; prior to this, she had switched fields to study medicine, and she completed her medical degree at Tokyo Women's Medical Vocational School in 1944.

From 1944 to 1949 she was a student of psychiatry at the University of Tokyo. There, she met her future husband Kamiya Noburō, whom she married in July 1946. For the next decade, Kamiya played the role of housewife and mother to their two children, shouldering the majority of the responsibilities of the household while also teaching foregin languages and correcting the English-language papers of her husband and his students.

In several diary entries from 1954, Kamiya expresses her frustration at being unable to pursue perhaps her most important source of ikigai due to these commitments: 

‘Every day I get so frustrated with my English correction to the point I want to kill myself. Is life the experience of doing things you don't want to do? How long do I have to be a language teacher? Languages, you are a curse to me.

If I spend so much time on these things, I will never be able to stand on my own as a psychiatrist. I don't know how many times I have thought of giving up my full-time job and becoming a lecturer. How can I manage the responsibilities of a full-time job, my family and my studies? It's a very human thing to do. Oh God, please give me the strength I need to climb these mountains forever and ever and ever and ever.’

In 1956, the opportunity to undertake a research project paved the way for Kamiya to write her dissertation, obtain her doctorate, and find employment as a professor - all of which eventually gave her the freedom and time to write her seminal book. This opportunity was a psychiatric study and survey of lepers.

Nagashima Aiseien Leprosarium

In Japan, she is recognized as a doctor who treated psychiatric patients, including leprosy sufferers at Nagashima Aiseien Leprosarium. Of those who do know her in Japan many believe Kamiya regarded her service to leprosy patients as her life’s most important work. However, this is not true. She went to Nagashima Aiseien Leprosarium to conduct a survey for a psychiatric research project.

It was from the interviews with leprosy patients at Nagashima Aiseien Leprosarium that she theorized her model of ikigai. Kamiya discovered that many patients with relatively light symptoms suffered from a sense of meaninglessness in their lives. This stimulated her into thinking about the question; “What makes one feel that life is worth living?”. Out of it grew the dissertation for which she received her doctorate from Osaka University in 1960.

This eventually resulted in the writing of her first and most important book, Ikigai-ni-Tsuite (What Makes Our Life Worth Living), published in 1966.  

Psychiatric Studies On Leprosy

‘It is surely of great importance to gather more information on the mental aspects of leprosy in order to extend not only material aid, but moral support as well to the victims of this disease.’3 - Mieko Kamiya 

The story of Japan’s lepers and what they were subjected to is a tragedy and a hidden shame of Japan. In 1907, Japan enacted the Leprosy Prevention Law, which, for almost 90 years, ostracised lepers from Japanese society and saw them shipped off to islands where they were forced to live in leprosariums. Family ties were severed and most patients were forced to change their family names so as not to bring shame to their relatives. Couples who married on these islands were banned from having children. Men were sterilised and women who fell pregnant were forced to have abortions. Life was hard for this group who were already suffering from a debilitating and disfiguring disease.

During 1957 and 1958 Kamiya made seven visits to Aisei-en National Leprosarium, the largest national leprosarium in Japan, where 1,725 patients lived segregated on the small island of Nagashima in Okayama Prefecture. During each of these visits, which lasted a few days to a week on average, Kamiya made efforts to observe and participate in various aspects of the lepers’ lives, and undertook psychiatric examinations, bedside interviews with hospitalised patients, detailed questionnaires, sentence completion tests, and other psychological tests.

One of Kamiya’s objectives was to investigate the mental condition of the patients and go deep into the lower levels of their minds and find out, if possible, the psychological mechanisms underlying their mental state. Unsurprisingly, many of her interviewees were frustrated – a feeling with numerous causes:

‘For among the numerous physical, sexual, social, economic and mental frustrations and inferiority feelings with which mainly the males are beset, the most characteristic were the feelings of boredom and the sense of the meaninglessness of their existence stated by as many as 35 and 60 male cases respectively in Group IV; another conspicuous trait was the entire lack of future hopes or aims in almost half of the group. Thus it is found that even in a life where material care is guaranteed by the state, this sense of meaninglessness and aimlessness is one of the greatest causes of frustration.’

Surprisingly, Kamiya discovered that many patients with relatively mild symptoms suffered from a sense of meaninglessness in their lives, while other patients with more severe symptoms could find a sense of purpose and desire to keep on living. Particularly interesting were the people who, despite their desperate circumstances, were still able to live with hope.

For example, some patients had lost their eyesight completely but wrote haiku by carefully listening to the natural world outside their windows. Others, wanting to learn the harmonica, would read music scores with braille using their lips and tongue rather than be held back by missing fingers; in fact, one patient practised reading braille to the point where his lips and tongue bled. 

Observations like these helped Kamiya to reflect further on what makes one feel that life is worth living and no doubt drove her to write her seminal book in which she shared her model of ikigai. In fact, in the introduction of Ikigai ni Tsuite, Kamiya states that much of the data she obtained at Aisei-en National Leprosarium played a leading role in her book and she expressed her gratitude to the lepers who were willing to be interviewed and responded to her surveys.

‘I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to those who responded to the unpleasant surveys that violated the "privacy of suffering" and told us many things through their painful breathing, and to those who wrote their memoirs with their crippled hands. More than the words of any teacher or the teachings of any book, I believe that being in contact with the living presence of these lepers has taught me more than anything else.'

While Mieko Kamiya is perhaps best known in Japan for her service to leprosy patients, she personally felt that it was writing, not psychiatry, that was her ikigai. Writing was a lifelong ambition, but she was unable to pursue it until the later years of her life. On 7th September 1961, upon completing the first draft of her book, she wrote in her diary:

‘I have been feverishly writing for ten days…I have more or less finished writing [the first draft]...

All that had been bottled up in my mind is now out and I feel a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders…I feel that I could die without regret. I am so grateful for the health of my family and my body.’

A Woman With Demons

Throughout her life, Kamiya battled demons, as documented in her biography, A Woman With Demons: The Life of Kamiya Mieko. These included dealing with several decades of depression due to the loss of her first love, battling multiple illnesses including cancer, and for decades living with the frustration of not being able to pursue work as a scholar and writer. We can say the Mother of Ikigai herself struggled with a life sometimes lacking ikigai.

On October 16th in 1951, she wrote, ‘My demons have been raging terribly these days, and countless times I have felt like abandoning myself to desire.’16

Two years later on October 15th 1953, she wrote:

‘If I give myself up to despair, that will be the end. Isn't it precisely through overcoming the temptation to self-abandonment that I can feel that my life is worth living?  If I give up, I will just become a woman, wrinkled with care and ravaged by both physically and mentally, who is overcome by the difficulties of real life and is forever complaining about them. If I do nothing but side jobs to earn money, that will inevitably be my fate. That is because in the side jobs there is no real intellectual concentration and challenge.’

When she began writing her book, she wrote in her diary on 14 February in 1960:

‘I've been writing all day, ("Ikigai ni Tsuite") Still, I am not making much progress. I've been thinking and writing a lot. Sometimes I am troubled by self-loathing. I am so bored. I wonder if it is worth it... I can't catch a break these days.’

This reveals the existential nature of ikigai – that just because something is meaningful to us doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy (like writing a book); however, our deep soul connection to a task or mission somehow gives us strength to keep going despite the barriers. Despite these struggles, perhaps more than anything in her life, writing gave Kamiya her strongest experience of ikigai-kan. On September 11th in 1961 she wrote:

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 be some day gradually revealed to me in this way.’

Her diary entries are a good reminder that ikigai is about the powerful emotions that make life feel worth living. Ikigai-kan is what we want to experience.

As a pioneering researcher and author on the ikigai concept, Kamiya was ahead of her time, contemplating purpose and life meaning decades before the positive psychology movement of the early 2000s – all while juggling teaching, translation, parenting and domestic duties.

She is not only ‘one of the most remarkable women of twentieth-century Japan’ – to use the words of her biographer Yuzo Ota – but also a visionary whose name should be recognised among the likes of Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl, Martin Seligman, and Christopher Peterson. 

It is a tragedy that Kamiya’s significant contribution to the ikigai concept has not yet been translated for consumption by a global audience; perhaps the increasing popularity of the ikigai concept will eventually see her receive the recognition she deserves.

Kamiya’s story also highlights the significant but often unknown or underrepresented contributions of women researchers in a variety of fields.