013 – Ken Mogi And The Kodawari Spirit

How often do you take great care with the fine details of your work?

In Japan, there exists a concept known as Kodawari, which represents the relentless pursuit of perfection. How can we attain Kodawari? What does it feel like to possess a Kodawari spirit?

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, join Nick and Ken Mogi as they discuss kodawari and how people can achieve it.

Podcast highlights:

Ken Mogi

ikigai explained

Ken Mogi is a neuroscientist, researcher, university lecturer, author, broadcaster, and media commentator. He has published more than 30 papers on cognition and neuroscience, and over 100 books in Japan featuring popular science, essays, criticism, and self-help; his books have sold close to 1 million copies.

Follow Ken on Twitter and Youtube.



The concept of kodawari

Ken describes kodawari as a central element of ikigai -- a personal standard to which the individual adheres to in a steadfast manner and approach, whereby people take extraordinary care of very small details. Kodawari is the idea that people have their own rules, their standards, and even if it’s not supported by the customer or would be appreciated by the market, they do their kodawari anyway.
Do what you want

A prime illustration of Kodawari can be observed in a ramen noodle restaurant, where the owner-chef exemplifies a deep commitment to perfection in crafting the noodles, soup, and ingredients. The customers are not aware of the extra length the owner would go just to make his bowl of ramen noodle perfect, but the owner continues to do it still because he has developed sensitivities to how the noodles should taste.

Is kodawari unique to Japan?

Although Ken thinks that kodawari has a lot to do with Japanese craftsmanship, he does not think that kodawari is unique to Japan. He cites Steve Job as an example of a non-Japanese person who has the kodawari spirit. 

Jobs exemplifies some of the traits that are typically associated with a Japanese person with kodawari: introverted, introspective, perhaps not hugely communicative, but instead dedicating time and effort to simply sticking to their own way of doing things.

Is the Kodawari spirit exclusive to only artists or craftsmen?

Ken thinks that there’s no final state of ‘perfection’. Rather, even the top ranked people in each field -- e.g., artists or craftsmen -- can continue improving, and can and should therefore always keep striving to get better.


I think the Japanese assumption is that you can improve more. There's no perfect state. You're never there, and you're always on your way being there, but you're never there in this life.. - Dr. Ken Mogi

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There's no perfect state

Nick thinks that this idea of kodawari is something that everyone should learn: People themselves can’t be perfect, but they might strive to find perfection in a particular field -- or, if they can’t be uniformly perfect in that field, perhaps they can perfect one aspect of it. 

Kodawari communication

Nick shares a quote from Ken’s book: “Producing ‘just fine’ or ‘just so’ things would make you reasonably successful. However, those with kodawari go beyond that, without any apparent reason. ‘Good enough’ is simply not good enough for them."

Ken explains that this refers to the fact that someone must want, with all their being, to know and achieve kodawari, since it is not a thing that is easy to explain and learn.


As an example, Ken discusses Kenichiro Nishi, owner of Kyoaji -- considered by many to be the finest restaurant serving Japanese traditional cuisine. Kenichiro’s father was also a chef, but never taught Kenichiro how to cook; instead, whenever they cooked together, Kenichiro’s father would ask Kenichiro to go run errands during the intricate preparation, making up  excuses so that Kenichiro couldn’t see the crucial steps. Kenichiro responded by preparing everything in advance so that he would already have what his father asked for and could stay and learn rather than having the cooking secrets kept from him.

Stealing craftsmanship

Ken says that in Japan, this is a default way of learning craftsmanship: Deshi, apprentices, are told to steal craftsmanship by observing their master and stealing their skills or secrets. They are rarely taught or instructed on how to execute crucial tasks or procedures, but instead have to learn by observing, ‘stealing’ the knowledge if they want to excel at what they do.

Relationship between kodawari and flow state

Ken shares that what he observed from interviewing many craftsmen is that they seem to be in the state of flow when they do their job; they never stop and are always in motion. Kodawari is synonymous with a flow state; people achieve a certain level of mastery, they have a constant state of flow in which they exercise their kodawari.

Nick goes on to recount his personal experience with his father-in-law, who happens to be a skilled Shino-yaki pottery maker. He would see his father-in-law spend time in the factory and just step into flow so easily. As he worked at his pottery wheel, skillfully crafting a matcha jawan, it was unmistakable that he effortlessly entered a state of flow.

Shokunin Damashii

Kodawari is a very important part of shokunin damashii, or ‘craftsman’s spirit’. Ken says that to Japanese people, this phrase evokes people who quietly get on with doing their duties out of the spotlight, without boasting, but nevertheless enjoying themselves and working to their fullest potential. 

Pursuing goals beyond reasonable expectations

Nick shares something that Ken mentioned in his book:

One crucial aspect of Kodawari is that people pursue their own goals above and beyond reasonable expectations based on market forces. Eventually, something miraculous happens, a breakthrough, the creation of a new genre of products resulting in a new market where people are prepared to pay premium prices for qualities previously unimagined. - Dr. Ken Mogi

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“One crucial aspect of kodawari is that people pursue their own goals above and beyond reasonable expectations based on market forces. Eventually, something miraculous happens, a breakthrough, the creation of a new genre of products resulting in a new market where people are prepared to pay premium prices for qualities previously unimagined." 

When asked to provide an example of this, Ken describes how many sake (rice wine) producers do not enjoy sake and yet produce excellent vintages that are commended by others. What they do is not for their personal pleasure, but for others to consume. 

Nick says that another thing about Japan is that they’ll look at something outside their culture, and make something out of it; the Japanese have the talent of taking something already produced at a high standing but putting their own stamp on it and producing better quality.

Starting small

According to Ken, the most difficult aspect of kodawari is that, to practice it, people need to start small -- people start from scratch, and it is a great way to start things. Rather than focusing on their ultimate goals, people start from something small. The whole attitude of starting from small things makes people go the longest in terms of creating something wonderful. That’s the typical approach by Japanese people, having specific and small things.

Ken Mogi’s ikigai

Ken shares that his ikigai is to have epiphanies. He explains that sometimes people have this moment when they realize something important in their life, and that they’ve done something good for other people, like epiphanies. Ken thinks that the idea that you have done something good to other people without even noticing it is fulfilling; he thinks that the world is a place where people don’t say thank you to others from whom they received so much. When people look back, the realization hits them that others have given them inspirations and valuable teachings but they haven’t expressed their gratitude for these people.


Just do what you want to do, as Ken says: That is what kodawari is all about. Specifically, just keep on improving with your craft; it doesn’t matter if you gain recognition or not, as long as you love what you are doing, people don’t have to know about it. What matters is that you enjoy what you do and you learn from it so that you can master your craft and serve it to people.