"According to Japanese Culture, finding your Ikigai is the most honourable and rewarding thing one can do. It’s the key to a long and happy life. So what exactly is Ikigai?
The literal translation is “the reason for which one lives”, which does the word justice. Your Ikigai can be your job, your lover, your family, your hobby, or anything else. It’s whatever brings you satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life. If you’ve ever woken up next to someone you truly love, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That’s why I also like the figurative translation, “the reason for which one wakes up in the morning.”
In order to truly understand the nuances of this word, you must know the different ways in which it’s used. Ikigai is something you can have, feel, search for, or find." - Yohei Nakajima
In the podcast:
- Yohei’s Backstory 01:45
- The Westernized Attempt at defining ikigai 07:07
- Definition of ikigai 09:07
- How do you know when someone has ikigai? 10:58
- Feeling ikigai 13:25
- Journey of finding ikigai 15:59
- Ikigai is about fulfilment 17:34
- How do we know we have found ikigai? 19:23
- The importance of finding your role 21:13
- Ikigai is not a special word 23:14
- Ikigai becoming a global phenomenon 26:42
- Being present 30:55
- What is Yohei’s ikigai? 33:50
Nick: This is Nick Kemp with Episode 16 of the ikigai podcast and my guest today is a venture capitalist Yohei Nakajima. Yohei describes himself as a connector of people and ideas and also a data geek. Yohei is the Senior Vice President of Scrum ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm investing across a range of industries in the US and Japan. Yohei thank you for coming on to the podcast.
Yohei: Thank you for having me.
Nick: It's a real pleasure to have you on. The reason why I reached out to you is that you wrote this amazing article in 2011 on your blog post, and it was titled, 'What is your ikigai?'. This blog post helped me understand what ikigai means to the Japanese. So before we begin talking about this amazing blog post you wrote, can we get a bit of background? I do know that you were born in Japan, but you did spend a number of years growing up in the States.
Yohei: Yeah, I'd be happy to chat about that. So I was born in Tokyo and I moved to the States, Seattle, specifically when I was two and a half. So I grew up in America, I did speak Japanese at home. My parents are Japanese, we followed a lot of traditional cultures. I went to Japanese school on Saturday so I always had Japanese around me but definitely grew up in the States. I went to high school in Japan for a couple of years, which was a pretty eye-opening experience. I thought I was Japanese before I moved there but when I moved there I quickly realized I wasn't and was labelled American. Spending three years there I got pretty immersed in the Japanese culture and I understand it much better than before I had gone.
Afterwards, I moved to California for college, stayed in LA for about a decade and then back in Seattle now. As you mentioned, Scrum venture is a fund in the bay area that has close ties to Japanese corporates. So I've actually picked up a lot of Japanese again in the last couple of years. Professionally, I hadn't used much Japanese professionally until I started working for Scrum ventures and was reimbursed into Japanese work culture which is something I had never been exposed to. So I had a lot of learning there as well. So I definitely span a US culture and Japanese culture leaning heavily with the American side.
Nick: I probably didn't pick that up on our last conversation. I thought maybe you spent three or four years in the states and that you went back to finish your education in Japan. Do you feel you're American or Japanese? I have a son who's half Japanese and Australian and I think because he spent most of his life where he'll probably say he's Australian but he does have a connection to Japan. Do you say you're American or Japanese or you don't really think about it?
Yohei: I don't think about it much. At work I'm often asked that question, especially working with Japanese people but speaking English proficiently. In some ways I feel more American, my English is stronger than my Japanese, spent more time here, I grew up here, my friends are American. But when it comes to a lot of core things around family and life, I was raised by Japanese parents. I'd say that a lot of my core values stem from that. So I say in some senses, I definitely feel more Japanese but in some sense, I feel more American.
Nick: When you did go to high school in Japan, were you fully accepted?
Yohei: That's a good question. The short answer is no. Fortunately, my parents were thought ahead enough. I went to a school called ICU High School in Tokyo. About two-thirds of the students had actually lived abroad at some point. So they had an interesting system where it would account for your English and Japanese skills, you could Level Up and down but it was very friendly. I was on the lowest Japanese level and highest English level. Most of the kids who had lived abroad had only lived abroad for maybe two or three years because their parents had lived abroad. So I was by far the longest as far as having lived abroad and I was often labelled American. There was a little bit of picking on I'd say happening during high school that I eventually overcame but it was definitely challenging.
Nick: I think it's probably a great thing to be a child growing up in two cultures. It's obviously benefited you greatly in your career now.
Yohei: Yeah, it definitely has and it's been eye-opening working with Scrum, and being able to be a bridge between the two countries in a work setting has been really fulfilling as well.
Nick: One thing I desperately want to do is go back to Japan and explore the culture more deeply. While I lived there I didn't really have the time to travel a lot. Is that something you want to do as well?
Yohei: Having kids who are half Japanese, it's definitely important for me to expose them to Japanese culture. So we try to observe Japanese holidays when we can. My parents are in Seattle as well close by so we do it with them. And before the pandemic, we were travelling once a year to Japan doing the rounds having my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents meet my kids. We did Kyoto and Osaka once and we would hope to be able to explore Japan as a family.
The Westernized Attempt at defining ikigai
Nick: I'm really keen to go back. We had plans to go back this year. But COVID had its own plan. When I spoke to you last time I showed you that westernized version of ikigai that diagram that asks you, are you doing something that you love that you're good at that the world needs and that you can be paid for? With ikigai being in the centre. And you hadn't seen that before. So what was your impression of that westernized attempt at defining ikigai?
Yohei: It was the first time I'd seen that and since then, I've looked at it a little bit. My gut reaction was candidly a little bit negative. Ikigai is about finding to some extent purpose in life or sense of purpose in life. I think a lot of people get that from being a good dad or having hobbies you enjoyed. I think the idea that you need to get paid for your purpose may limit people from finding their purpose. Those were my first reactions to seeing that.
Nick: Yeah, I've heard other Japanese say that it's not about making money or getting paid for your ikigai. I did a webinar last night, sort of explaining what ikigai mean to the Japanese. When they find out that Venn diagram is not Japanese, it's not made by a Japanese person, it was actually made by someone who had almost no knowledge of ikigai. They're astounded, they're so shocked and almost disappointed. But once we go through what ikigai means to Japanese by the end of the webinar they think wow this is so much deeper and broader and it makes more sense, and they feel a stronger connection to these ideas of being a better parent or being a better person in the community or valuing what really matters.
Definition of ikigai
Nick: Let's begin talking about this amazing blog post you wrote. You write that there are words in the Japanese language that have shaped the way you think and ikigai was one of these words, and I felt you really encapsulated ikigai in this one blog post. So if you were pushed to provide a one-sentence definition on ikigai, do you think you could do that?
Yohei: Yes. I think it's about a sense of purpose, feeling a sense of purpose. I specifically say feeling a sense of purpose separate from purpose because it is used casually. I can imagine being on a fishing boat with a friend and seeing the waves and seeing the sun and catching a fish and looking over and saying Wow this really gives me a sense of ikigai. The sense of purpose, living in a moment that makes you feel alive. That's what I think ikigai is about, it's the sense of having a purpose and sense of living, sense of being present. I think for some people it can tie to your actual purpose in life if you do find one, but I don't think it has to be that by any means.
Nick: It's interesting that you describe it as a sense of purpose. Something I discovered is there's another word ikigaikan which is ikigai feeling or ikigai awareness. That's really helped me understand it's the feeling of ikigai that you want to experience. And that you do experience in these moments where you may be connected to nature, or you have intimacy with someone.
How do you know when someone has ikigai?
Nick: What you write about ikigai is really interesting, because you also describe it as the most honourable and rewarding thing one can do and that it can be the key to a long and happy life. I first want to touch on how there really is no equivalent word in English. When I first went to Japan, I became frustrated with words and concepts that weren't easily explained to me, or that couldn't really be translated. Now I have this appreciation, and understanding that we need to let definitions go when it comes to certain Japanese words and that context is really important. You talk about that, how context is important when we think about ikigai. You write that we must know the different ways in which ikigai is used and it has these nuances. You say:
"Ikigai is something that you can have, feel, search for and find."
So that's that with having ikigai. How do you know when someone has ikigai?
Yohei: You see them and you can tell that they're living their life to the fullest and it's a sense of feeling you can get from seeing them. It could be anything from just them doing mundane work but they could be doing it fast with a smile on their face or they could just be living their best life. I think the idea of someone who has ikigai or is full of ikigai and it may not be the direct translation, but when you feel that sense, you can kind of see it. I think that's something we all strive for, is to not just feel it personally, but hopefully impact others in a positive way that makes them want to feel it or feel it themselves.
Nick: I think we just missed the start of what you're saying. But I imagine you're saying it's someone who's full of life and full of energy.
Yohei: Yes, so someone who is full of life, full of energy and is living their best life. It's a sense you get from seeing them, it's not something that's easily describable, it's something you feel I think when you see somebody who's full of ikigai.
Nick: In my research, especially with a writer, and someone who I like to refer to as the mother of ikigai psychology, Kamiya Mikko, she describes that there are two ways to use the word ikigai. She offers an example that when someone says, This child is my ikigai, it refers to the source or target of ikigai. She's a psychiatrist, so she's framing it like that. Then when one feels ikigai it's a state of mind, or this awareness or this feeling ikigaikan. You talk about feeling your ikigai in your blog post, would you like to also touch on that?
Yohei: Yeah, I think feeling ikigai as I mentioned is that sense of life, the moment makes you appreciate life. It's something that I think we all strive for. And again, this can be in a moment, this can be doing something that you love repeating, or as I mentioned, it could be something that you've done for the first time.
I think actually sometimes you get the most sense of fulfilment in life when you do something for the first time, which is counter-intuitive to purpose because you assume that purpose is something that you do over and over but I think to live a full life is not just to do the same thing over and over again, but to experience different parts of life.
Then I caveat that with again, it does depend on the person. I think anybody can feel ikigai from anything, and there are no set rules on If it's something that has to be done often if it's something that you do once, but it is something that gives you an appreciation for being in this world. That feeling wherever it comes from, I think is what we strive for and what I think of when I think of feeling ikigai.
Nick: Yeah, I agree. I also like how you wrote that people who are around other people who have ikigai can almost feel it, hinting that it's contagious.
Yohei: Yeah, I guess I kind of touched on that a moment ago. But I do think it is contagious. I think when we're surrounded by people who are full of life, It's probably the most direct translation, it makes you excited and happy to appreciate life when you see someone appreciate life so much. I think on the flip side when you're around people who seem to not find joy in life that can, unfortunately, be contagious as well. But it goes both ways.
Journey of finding ikigai
Nick: So I think my audience Yohei would be wanting to find their ikigai. You write about how it's a journey and something you search for. And it's something I know you obviously went through. So would you like to touch on that?
Yohei: I think it's cliché to quote that it's about the journey, not the end. But life is a journey. There's no moment that I think you're living toward. I think you're constantly looking to appreciate life as it is. A constant search is a life itself and that's what I'm referring to, For some people there are moments in life where you wake up and you don't know what's next. It might be a quarter-life midlife crisis or it could just be a slump that you're going through.
Yohei: Whenever I have a slump, I always remember that that's an opportunity for me to look for ikigai in places I haven't looked before. Then when you do find it, you dive into it, and you wake up every morning excited that you have something to look forward to. And I think some people when they don't feel that ikigai when they wake up, and they're just not excited about life, not excited about what's happening during the day, I think it's important to remember that it is about the search, it is about finding and it's great that if you find it and get to do it. But not feeling ikigai is not a bad thing. It's an opportunity to look for ikigai and places you haven't looked before.
Ikigai is about fulfillment
Nick: You've reminded me of one aspect that I've learned from Kamiya Mikko about ikigai that it's about fulfilment, having this idea you have life fulfilment, and that even in times where life is hard, and you're struggling if you believe your life is moving forward in a positive direction, you can feel ikigai at that moment. And it does help you to continue and live your journey or in a sense, you don't proactively search every day for your ikigai but you do look for meaning in your life. And you do want a sense of purpose. And that if we do reach states of boredom, or frustration, as you said, it's probably a sign for us to try something new or be proactive.
Yohei: I think it's called the hedonist cycle. The idea we have ups and downs but on average, we're just the same. I kind of buy into that concept to some extent, to the extent that we do have ups and downs but I think being a nerdy person that I am if you graph it out, I think the average can slowly increase.
Overtime If you look back 10 years from now, as your life on average has the last three years been better than the three years 10 years ago? I tend to look at it that way. So that even if I am feeling down, I just remember, it's part of the cycles of ups and downs, just like there are summer and winter. But on average, is my life improving? When asked me that question, the answer tends to be Yes, granted, I feel blessed that I get to say that. But I think it is important to have a long term view when it comes to finding purpose or ikigai in addition to a short term view as well.
How do we know we have found ikigai?
Nick: It's interesting how we're having this conversation and how we started with this idea that ikigai in the West was this sweet spot of finding something that you love, that you're good at, that the world needs and you can be paid for. And what we're discussing and you're sharing is ikigai will come and go, it'll change over time and your life has these ups and downs. So ikigai is not this sweet spot to try and hope that you'll get to one day, it's actually something we can find and my question is, how do we know when we've found it?
Yohei: When you find it you feel it. Specifically, I touch on a little trick that I think works and this is candidly a little bit of my take on purpose and ikigai is that I believe that we as humans are inherently social creatures.
Today we have multiple tribes. Historically in the past, you had a village and you had your one tribe, today, we have a lot of different tribes and within that tribe, I think all of us have a character that we embody, within that tribe, your role within that community. Within a family you could the jokester father or at work, you could be still a co-worker or the heads down the guy who gets it down, or the guy who's always called, even in the case of emergency, but we all have this rule that we play within a tribe, I think looking for that rule within your various tribes is, I call it a hack on finding ikigai, because it gives you a sense of purpose within that tribe, within your community.
The importance of finding your role
Nick: That part of your article was what made me so happy because it was like the missing piece. I was desperately trying to understand ikigai, been doing a lot of research and then I found your article and when I read those last few paragraphs about understanding your role in your community, in your personal community, it just made so much sense because we have roles, and we live our values through our roles.
I think one important aspect of ikigai is you want to be living your life in line with your values. So if you're a playful, loving Father you are that role. You'll have a feeling of ikigai but if for whatever reason you're stressed and you're under a lot of pressure and one night you come home and your kids want to play and you get upset or angry. A few seconds after that moment and minutes, maybe hours after that moment, you'll have this regret, because you have expressed yourself in opposition to your values. So I think this was the biggest takeaway for me from your blog posts that we have roles to play in our tribes and it's important we find these roles and live them.
That's really the best advice because there are many best selling books that say ikigai, the Japanese secret to a long and happy life. But they don't really offer a way for you to find it other than saying eat well, exercise, have many friends. But they don't offer something you can really think about and reflect on and think what is my role and my family? Or what is my role in my circle of friends, or in my workplace, or as an entrepreneur? So that was very helpful and it really was the reason why I reached out to you.
Ikigai is not a special word
Nick: Moving on, one thing you touched on earlier, and this will probably shock our audiences that while the concept is important and deeply personal, the word ikigai to Japanese is not actually a special word. It's used in daily conversation and it's not a self-help word.
Yohei: You mentioned earlier that Japanese languages impacted me but it wasn't something I noticed until much later in life. Japan is a very Shinto Buddhist culture, we don't talk about being religious that much in Japan. But what I've noticed is that in these proverbs that are regularly used in the language, even in the characters that are used to represent specific words, a lot of the values are embedded in the language itself.
Ikigai was one of those words that I never thought of as an important word. It was just a word that we use. "Oh, doing this is exciting, you really feel a sense of ikigai", is really just like, "Oh, I feel alive", that's something we would casually say. In Japan, it's used casually enough, here you won't say "oh, this makes me feel a sense of purpose". That's not what you say, you just say I feel alive.
I think that casual use of the word is pretty powerful because it allows people to approach it casually as well. It's not something that you should stress about whether or not you're finding your ikigai or not, but it's something that does come and go. It is casual to some sense, It can be fleeting, and of course, there's a deeper meaning if you can find an ikigai in this case, a subject that you live the rest of your life and that's exciting. But to your point, I think the casualness of using a word that has so much deep meaning is what I thought was really powerful about the way ikigai is used in Japan.
Nick: That seems to be typical of Japanese culture. When I think about religion in Japan, rather than belief, it seems to be more custom based, and Japanese have all these customs that they practice related to the religion, but they never really express love for Buddha or love for any Shinto gods, but they're very respectful in how they maintain these customs.
I know when parents or family members die, every number of years Japanese go back to the grave, they'll clean it, they'll often visit the grave. That's a custom that most Japanese are happy to do and do. Whereas in the West, we don't do those sorts of things. Very rarely would we regularly go back to our parents grave and claim their grave. I've noticed Japanese do rather than talk about these concepts, and the best way probably to observe Japanese culture is to definitely live in Japan, but observe Japanese, rather than trying to ask them what does ikigai mean, what does Wabisabi mean?
Ikigai becoming a global phenomenon
Nick: There is this mystique to all these Japanese words in the West. It's astounding how ikigai has become so popular. People who contacted me asked me to offer a coaching program to certify them as ikigai coaches, and it's quite amazing how something that Japanese grew up with, has become this global phenomenon outside of Japan and most Japanese don't even know about it. What are your thoughts on that? That ikigai has become this almost global craze, with multiple books being written on it, people wanting to become ikigai coaches. It's even on the World Health Organization website as that westernized framework.
Yohei: It's interesting, I remember really hearing that TED talk about Blue Zones where people live for a long time and one of the things that really struck me was that when he talked about exercise, it wasn't that these people were always going to the gym, but that movement was just part of their daily life, whether as a community, they often went on hikes. They even mentioned in Okinawa sitting on the floor forces an elevated person to stand up and sit down on the floor. That micro exercises embedded into your day is what keeps you healthy.
I think the same applies to mental health. I don't think he touches on that but it isn't necessarily about sitting down and meditating for an hour every single day. But I think you can live life mindfully and think of everything that you do as a mental exercise. When you do, it does act that way, just even thinking about it that way.
Specific to that language, ikigai I think it's great to focus on it and think about it a lot but my observation of Japanese culture and people, and the language is that we don't take it seriously In some sense. We use it casually, it's embedded into our language and another example might be the word destiny. I don't remember really talking about destiny with my parents growing up but if something I thought wanted to happen didn't happen, the response was always it wasn't meant to be. We didn't go deep into the discussion of destiny, but using that language allowed me to understand in a different way than had I just sat down and studied.
It becomes embedded into the way we think and I think with the word ikigai, it's a challenge because it's not a word that I feel like will easily just integrate into the English language, that people just suddenly start using it. Probably the closest thing I find is the idea of getting into a flow state. It's a little bit different, but I feel like that's picking up a little bit of steam in the US. So that seems like something that we could probably talk about a little bit more and might be interesting to dig into what the similarities are overlapped between finding flow state and finding your ikigai might be because I think there probably is.
As far as coaching goes, I think it's great. Any effort that people put into learning something and then bettering themselves is great. But I think it is helpful to understand the full context of it and take it in a way that makes sense for you. Do not forget to do it outside of the time that you've dedicated to doing it. Even if you're going to the gym every day, take the stairs instead of the elevator sometimes.
I think the same thing applies to people who are looking for a sense of purpose for ikigai, it's great that you read up on it, do coaching and study it. But the real work happens outside of that time you dedicated. The real work happens in the day to day conversation. If you change a little bit of the language that you use, or just think about something slightly different, or just ask yourself like, Am I happy to be alive? Yes or no and why or why not? When's the last time I felt alive and asking yourself that every once in a while I think it can have an immense impact over the long run on someone's mental well being,
Nick: I think you've just delivered an amazing amount of wisdom and what you've shared with us. Going back to flow, one thing I discovered about ikigai is being able to express your creative self and reach states of flow in your hobbies or interests or your work was another way to feel ikigaikan, ikigai feeling. obviously, to do that we need to be present. Japanese are good at being present and you can see that manifested in the craftsmanship or the products they produced.
So while there's this big mindfulness boom in the West, I think one of Japan's or Japanese strongest traits or abilities is their ability to be present and in the moment, and they focus on their craft, or they work for hours on end. Whereas in the West, we have a tendency to want to talk about what we're going to do, and get excited and share it. Japanese seem to quietly pursue their craft or their ikigai without really talking about it. Because it's like they want to be present and they want to dedicate themselves to their art or their craft or their work.
Yohei: That's interesting you say that. In Japan, the word is shokunin. The Craftsman and I really do think of Japanese, a craftsman shokunin culture, people really take pride in whatever work they do. One of my favourite stories I like hearing is about my friend's parents where they had worked at a bank for a long time. Their ability to flip through a stack of yen and count it that way really quickly. Counting bills sounds like such a mundane task. But if you're going to do it over and over again, you might as well be the best at it. You want to be efficient at it. I think that's really beautiful. I think if you can just try to excel at everything you do and you find joy in that to look for joy in bettering yourself and whatever that may be and not worry about whether or not that's a skill you want for the rest of your life. But if you're going to be doing it, try to do it the best and try to get better at it every single day, I think it is pretty important.
Nick: No, I'm glad you mentioned Shokunin because I did stumble upon the word Shokunin Damashii. The Craftsman spirits. Maybe that's something we can apply to our work, even if it is counting yen bills or doing something that maybe we would think is mundane. But if we're present, and we have this spirit, maybe bring craftsmanship into what we do. It benefits not only ourselves but for everyone around us.
What is Yohei’s ikigai?
Nick: Now that you have defined one way to define an ikigai as finding your role in your personal tribal community. So what is your role? Or what is your ikigai?
Yohei: The first thing that pops to mind is family. I have two kids that are one and three, and my wife and those two kids are absolutely the reason I wake up in the morning. I'm lucky that I get to work from home. I've been doing it for about five years, so quite a bit before everybody started working from home, but they're absolutely the first thing that pops into my mind.
We talked about work too and I find purpose in my work. As a venture capitalist, I see my role as somebody in charge of deploying resources to a project that I believe should exist in the world. The way in which to do that is to do it in a way that grows that resource. So it's a combination of helping founders who want to change the world, change the world. Creating more value out of value. I absolutely find purpose in doing that out of a very high level.
At a more granular level, one of the things I really like is making connections. As you mentioned in my bio between people, I love reading articles and sharing it with founders, finding articles that might be relevant to someone and sharing those articles, making introductions between two people that I believe should meet. There are a few things that make me happier than having somebody reach out and say, thank you so much for that introduction. Thank you so much for sharing that article. I definitely find purpose in this helping people in the best way I know how to.
Nick: I thought about this podcast thinking you take a venture capitalist talking about ikigai. A lot of people might see that as a contradiction because so many people would associate asking people for money or related to venture capitalism. You have to find your role and how it's more about building resources that have a positive impact, and connecting with people and forming these relationships and connections and sharing knowledge that you care about.
Ultimately, for you being a loving, caring husband and father is your core ikigai. I think what you've shared with us today gives us really valuable insight that most people won't find in these best-selling books. So I'm going to definitely link to your blog post from my website, and people can find you at your name, yoheinakajima.com. I've known recently, you've put up a lot of content.
Yohei: I write about what I want to do and I've been doing it for 10 years, it really started as an experiment. Just sharing what was top of mind, I almost see it almost like a public diary that I know people might read. So the content just really ranges based on who I am or what I'm thinking about. I think the idea of a sense of purpose being happy finding happiness, these are the things that are always on the back of my mind. So I have often taken time to make sure to share my thoughts on that as well as I happen upon them.
Nick: I'm going to keep my eye out on your blog, you'd be surprised how often I returned back to your article, just to reread it and I’m almost wanting that epiphany I had when I first read it because it was so powerful. So I recommend my audience, everyone should read this article. That one article would be enough for you to understand ikigai and then take your advice and go about searching, finding, feeling and having ikigai.
Thank you Yohei so much for your time today. I know you are a very busy man. I greatly appreciate what you've shared with us.
Yohei: Thank you so much. It was great chatting with you again and if anybody can find any bit of something in what we talked about, that's helpful to them. That alone makes me very happy.