020 – Dr. Iza Kavedzija on Happiness and Ikigai – Insights From Ageing Japan

Dr Iza Kavedzija

Dr. Iza Kavedzija

Dr. Iza Kavedzija is a senior lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Exeter, an anthropologist of Japan and the author of Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan which was published in 2019.

Iza's doctoral research examined the creation of meaning in life among older people in Osaka. Iza has also explored narratives of hope and hopelessness in contemporary Japanese society.

Iza's current area of research is an ethnographic study of young contemporary artists in Osaka.
In this episode we will be discussing Ikigai and Happiness of the elderly in Japan.

This is Nick Kemp with episode 20 of the ikigai podcast. My guest in this episode is Dr. Iza Kavedzija.

Iza, thank you for your time today and for coming on to the podcast. That sounds like a lot of study. How long have you been studying these fields or themes of ikigai, meaning in life, ageing and happiness?

In the podcast:

  • Iza’s backstory: 3:00  
  • The process of researching: 5:51  
  • Happiness: a balancing act between contrasting values and orientations to the world: 10:32
  • The three ways to say happiness: 16:07
  • Defining happiness: 18:46  
  • How the Japanese express joy: 24:15
  • Ikigai to the elderly: 27:00
  • Doing things properly: 34:30
  • ‘Meiwaku’: 40:27
  • Naikan therapy: 56:06


Nick: This is Nick Kemp with Episode 20 of the ikigai podcast. My guest in this episode is Dr Iza Kavedzija, Iza is a senior lecturer in Anthropology at University of Exeter, an anthropologist of Japan and the author of Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan which was published in 2019. 

Iza's doctoral research examined the creation of meaning in life among older people in Osaka. Iza has also explored narratives of hope and hopelessness in contemporary Japanese society. In this episode, we'll be discussing ikigai and happiness of the elderly in Japan. Iza thank you so much for your time today and for coming on to the podcast.

Iza: Thank you very much for inviting me. It's a real pleasure.

Nick: Now, that sounds like a lot of study Iza, how long have you been studying these fields, or themes of ikigai, meaning in life, aging, happiness, and hope and hopelessness?

Iza: I think I started sometime in 2007 or 2008 and I have remained interested in this ever since. It started as my doctoral research at the University of Oxford, when I thought I would like to look into different ways in which people conceptualize good life: what it means to live a good life for them. 

I'm an anthropologist, and when I started reading a little bit about happiness and the good life, I was a bit surprised at how little there had been written in social sciences, not just in anthropology, about living well, about happiness. I think there are multiple reasons for this and of course, social scientists do tend to focus on social problems and injustices, all of which is very much justified, and valuable and important. But I do think that just by looking at the inversion of what is a problem, we can't quite find out what is 'the good' for people who we work with. So that is what became my area of interest.

Iza’s backstory

Nick: Wow, and that's more than 10 years of focus study. I'd like to start with your life experience in Japan, what first attracted you to Japan?

Iza: There are many ways to tell that story, I think. So I first went to Japan, when I was a high school student, I'm from Croatia and in my high school, very unusually, we happen to have a Japanese language teacher, and she managed to organize an exchange program for us. So this was a very interesting opportunity and quite unusual here in this part of the world at the time. So I went to Japan, I spent three months there in Sendai. It was a wonderful experience, I had no language ability, at that time, it was very basic. 

It became an interest of mine, so I started studying Japanese at the university as well, alongside my major in anthropology and sociology. But it always remained as a side interest, a passion of mine that I never really thought of, as part of my academic pursuit until quite late in the Masters year. So when I was doing my masters at Oxford, I decided that maybe focusing on Japan would make sense as by then I'd acquired some language ability and had something of a basic understanding of the history and culture and so forth. 

So that's one way to tell that story about the range of decisions and that led to it. There's a different way of telling that story and by even further highlighting the importance of particular people and their ideas on how that led me to end up in Japan. Perhaps some important conversations I had with close friends about what it means to live well and then realizing that that is quite different in different places and perhaps people frame it in different ways. 

So I think that was a beginning for me, but I think this way of framing that story of how something comes about is something I've become more attentive as I spent more time with my older Japanese interlocutors in Osaka, who told their life stories quite differently from the way that we tend to, I decided this, decided that, but their stores always featured the importance of others invited and impaled invitations or mentions from friends who then ended up putting them in contact with somebody, and very explicitly featured other people in it. So I figured there are so many people in this story, it could take quite a long while to tell.

The process of researching

Nick: I see that's all right, I think that'd be very interesting. I'll tell the audience I read an article which they'll be able to access from my website, so I'll link to it, the Good Life imbalance insights from aging Japan. So you spent quite a few years in total in Japan, doing research and interviewing the elderly. So how much time in total would you say you spent in Japan specifically doing that?

Iza: For the research that you mentioned, that was my doctoral research, I've spent 14 months with the same group of people. So I was lucky enough to find a community cafe in the south of Osaka. So first, I thought maybe I would find some older Japanese who live in their own homes, whether with their families, or independently, I was very interested in working with older people, but not those who are necessarily in an institutionalized context. I wanted to do work with people in their own homes and then I realized that of course, entering homes isn't a simple matter. So I found this fantastic local NGO, and they were kind enough to allow me to volunteer there. 

So that meant that I've spent over a year coming to the same place almost daily, almost weekly, and established a very close contact over the year with a group of older people who frequented it, some came there more regularly, and some came only once a week. Of course, I also went to several other places while I was there, and I went to another such NGO in a different part of the city. But this was my core field side. This was my home when I was in Osaka for the first time in 2009 and ever since whenever I come back to Japan, I always go there. So I think there's been kind of an ongoing relationship for quite a few years now.

Nick: I didn't realize it was such a long time with the same people, so I imagine they became dear friends and you became a dear friend to them.

Iza: I think there was a sense of closeness, they got quite used to me. There were some nice situations of this, I was rather young at the time, but sometimes they would forget, and they wouldn't pay attention to that so if they were sharing some heat packs for lower back pain or something like that they might offer me some and then another person would say "It's okay, she doesn't need it". So it was rather nice. It was a very kind of close relationship. Unfortunately, some of them are no longer here.

Nick: Reading your study reminded me of my wife's aunts. She had six aunts, and all of them in their late 70s, early 80s. For Shogatsu, my wife's father was the Chonan, the eldest son, so every Shogatsu they would roll up, and they had this incredible energy. They were quite fit and came in bowling and all sat around the kotatsu just chatting away like they were best friends. It gave me some insight into how happy people could be just talking and sharing stories. 

One of them, I nicknamed Frodo because she was so small, and she had this black curly hair, she looked like Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings. But unfortunately, she passed away last year, which was sad, I found that out to go, I'll never see my favourite aunt again. 

What I found funny too, was how the cafe was described as a salon in Japanese. Is that what they call it in Japanese, as a salon in katakana Japanese?

Iza: Yes, Salonkita is I think a term for that. So it's like Kisa from kisaten like a coffee shop and salon. I guess it implies that it's more of open space and it's not necessarily a place which is operated purely for profit.

Happiness: a balancing act between contrasting values and orientations to the world

Nick: I was reading your article again last night and it made me come to realize how complex happiness or managing happiness is in Japan. You write 

"Happiness, in the Japanese context can usefully be understood as deriving from a series of negotiations and balancing acts between contrasting values and orientations to the world."

 Which sounds complex. Would you like to elaborate on that?

Iza: I was thinking about a way we can make sense of this enormous amount of data that a long stay and a long research day where they were every day yields a lot of material and was thinking how can we make sense of that, and I was trying to kind of order it. Some themes that emerged very strongly in lives of my older friends and I had the privilege to listen to conversations as they unfolded, sometimes taking part in those conversations, or throwing in a question and maybe gently steering them, as well as having an opportunity to have structured interviews and things and life course narratives that I was able to collect from them. 

So in all these various interactions, some themes that emerged quite strongly were things that are related to say, autonomy, or independence, and dependence, that is kind of striving to do justice to others, and look after them, and to pursue those things that matter to the person as well. So to have some degree of privacy, but also have a sense of sociality, to avoid the burden of over closeness, but at the same time, have an intimate sphere. 

I think it was quite important here for the people that I worked with because as people move through their lives, some of their close friends are what are sometimes called consociates, those that we move through life with that we've known for a long time, say classmates or neighbours, those people are no longer there. The older Japanese, like people everywhere, might find themselves in a situation where they need to form new relationships and so what was important for them then is to try and form relationships that are friendly and warm, but that is not as overly burdensome. I think they spoke of burden quite often, one way of doing that was precisely by coming to this town or community space but it was also open to other community members, it wasn't the exclusive sort to older people. 

In the process of being there, what they needed to attend to was how to be friendly to others, how to be warm, but at the same time, how not to be overly intrusive ask questions about their lives, that might be too much or inappropriate for a group setting, how not to bring other people's mood down. In all those pursuits the thought of others and their situation, considering their perspective was quite important. But also making sure that they had a good time was also quite important. So that was just one example of the many, many, many balancing acts that there were involved in. 

Another one that transpired and that I'll maybe touch upon in a bit more detail later, another dynamic that seemed quite important, was between narrative activities of speaking and describing lives and reminiscing together what I might call a narrative mode in which you're making sense of a situation and being able to be in the moment. Admiring how a dessert was served, or how a sweet brought by somebody from a remote region that they visited, is wrapped, and just dedicating all their attention to that, being there in that moment and not necessarily reminiscing or thinking about the future. That was another balancing act, that those who can live well were very good at.

Nick: You've just summarized probably all the answers to all the questions I had prepared for you. It does sound like a balancing act and Japanese, they seem to have the social awareness and ability to be skilled in doing it and it just becomes part of their makeup. Reading your article was hard work because I stopped and would reflect thinking that's right, I remember even just Japanese friends my age seem to appreciate things differently to how Westerners would. 

Now I had to take a break from reading because It just brought back all these memories, and the burden part came up in my mind so much that Japanese don't want to overburden themselves and there's the whole meiwaku thing, which we'll talk about. So I was impressed with your paper, it's quite a long paper and I thought, a lot of research and love has gone into this article. I thought this person understands the Japanese people. 

The three ways to say happiness

One thing I'd like to touch on is the word happiness. So generally in English, we just use the word happiness, but in Japanese, there are three ways to say happiness, shiawase, ureshii, and koufuku. Would you like to touch on the differences between those three words of happiness?

Iza: I think the third one koufuku that you mentioned, I think in some ways, maybe is the closest to the abstract sense of well being, and closest perhaps, to how we understand in English how it is used. At the same time, it's quite an abstract word, and you really wouldn't very often hear it in common conversation and everyday conversation. I think often you can find it in texts. 

The two other terms that you mentioned, the shiawase and ureshii, are both very frequently used and they have some similarities, but they're not entirely interchangeable. Shiawase might be translated as happiness or good fortune or blessing. Ureshii might be translated as glad, please or happy. 

I think the best illustration would be maybe through examples. For instance, one of my older interlocutors explained to me that she joined a sports club after turning 50 and now became as a consequence a bit more outgoing, more active, less shy. She said, I made many friends and I became more outgoing now, I'm really happy. "Hontoni Shiawase". Ureshii, we're so pleased you came, I'm so happy to see that you're here or I'm happy that I got to see this film. So it's a frequently used word. It includes a cheerful or glad feeling. So these are the most commonly used. 

I think it's also worth mentioning that happiness in a large evaluative sense like living a happy life is not very frequent in Japan. It's not something that I heard very often, and people will be a little bit reluctant to say that about their own lives.

Defining happiness

Nick: A very old lady in your paper, how she defined happiness or what happiness meant amused me. I think our listeners will be very surprised. So a kind, 90-year-old lady who came to know you well shared with you that in life, if you look after your husband's parents, you will be most happy. I think most if not all, my listeners would think the opposite of that statement. I'd like to ask you, what was this old lady wanting to communicate with this statement?

Iza: So I think maybe I need to give you a little bit more context to do her justice. This came at the end of her life story, and she gave me her life story over several different sittings, so we spoke for quite a long time. This person she led a long life, she had many children, she lived through the Second World War, her house was on fire in the Second World War, and she had to run away with her children in her arms by herself away from the Kansai region on foot, so she lived through considerable hardship, then lived a long and content life with her husband, and with her children postwar. 

Her husband was an official, so they had a stable source of income, source of income. Her main feeling of the field of self-realization was to care for her family and to make sure that for instance,  that they're eating healthy, and she could care for their health and they’re well being, by making sure that they eat balanced meals. 

So I think what she was getting at here was the sense of the importance of care and importance of caring for others and if one cares for others, then everything will be good and that care will also come back to them one way or another. This is not about straightforward reciprocity but in a sense that if we create a caring world and a caring community, then one way or another, those good things will be there, and therefore there will be there for us hopefully should we need them one day. 

Another way of thinking about what she might have been getting at here is a sense of fulfilling your social role. So not everyone finds their sense of fulfilment through fulfilling their social role but she certainly did well, in doing this job, she thought of herself primarily as a wife and a mother and that was part of this, this effort was a source of fulfilment for her. I think ikigai as I'm sure reflects upon in the previous podcast, particularly with Gordon Matthews, has this kind of dual meaning of it being a fulfilment and a self-development pursuit, but at the same time it has this meaning of being a role fulfilment, and being in alignment with the expectations of society. 

I think in this case, what she was trying to get at is that when those two are in alignment, when our sense of growth and fulfilment, are not intentioned with those that are expected of us, that can be very positive, we have to think about it in the context of her life and the generation. When I spoke to her, this lady was in her 90s but her sense was I think that care circulates in this broader way and so if you look after others, you know the world will be a good place. 

Nick: Thank you for the context, that helps us understand obviously what she meant and I have been told by several Japanese that finding one's role in their community, whether that's their family, or maybe in their neighbourhood is a way for them to experience ikigai and also this idea of caring for others. Even a young Japanese venture capitalist I interviewed said the secret hack is understanding your role in society, which involves providing for the people you care about, or the people who define who you are. I think it's great learning, it's something we should all probably think about what's our role, how can we help others? Especially the people who define us whether you're a parent or work role, or even in just your community. 

How the Japanese express joy

Moving on with happiness, your interlocutors which means your study subjects, they rarely spoke directly of happiness, and that stating such things about oneself could be perceived as bragging and it is customary in Japan to represent oneself and one's associates in a modest self-deprecating manner. When I read that, I found that to be so true, you seldom see Japanese as individuals celebrate or ecstatically express happiness. It's something my wife doesn't do either. Where I tend to want to share and celebrate good news or personal achievements. In your time in Japan, did you ever witness any of your Japanese friends express joy without restraint like freely or gleefully?

Iza: I would say absolutely, but I think it may have been directed slightly differently. So rather than being ecstatic of one's achievement, I would very frequently see quiet, unbridled joy at someone witnessing the beauty of colourful foliage on a mountainside or a child blowing bubbles. There's this sense of a gift of something you can take part in. I'd say that kind of joy was certainly there and ever-present, people appreciated things that they saw or read or witnessed the kind of happiness statements that we might be looking for in ones’ achievements, I think that there would be probably a little bit less frequent.

Nick: We'll touch on how Japanese do appreciate the smaller things in life far more than perhaps we do in the West. They do seem to enjoy and express it, their face will light up when they just observe something. I agree with you, it's something they observe and share rather than celebrating or expressing their good news about personal achievement. 

Ikigai to the elderly

You also noted that your study subjects frequently spoke of the sense of freedom they enjoyed in their later years, and the enjoyment of their hobbies and the importance of self-cultivation and these are themes of research pioneer Kamiya Mikko, which she writes about in her seminal book 'ikigai ni tsui te'. So more than happiness, is ikigai more important to the elderly? Or is it just something that seems to naturally occur because they're at an age where they're free, they're no longer working, they're no longer raising children or is it something they actively seek?

Iza: So this is a difficult and very interesting question. I think it's one of the best ones that I've got about this work, it's really interesting. I don't think the Japanese people and the people I've had the privilege to work with really spoke very much about either, and I don't think they spoke about ikigai or happiness very much, because both of these are seen somehow as practical, as based in doing and processes as ongoing, rather than something easy to capture. 

So to the extent that in the public discourse, ikigai was very strongly associated with all the people. As part of my background research for this work, I looked at academic works, and self help books and literature and newspaper articles in a particular period of time, looking for different uses of the word ikigai. What transpired is that ikigai was very frequently associated with older people in these various popular works, and with other groups that were somehow seen as being at threat of losing it or not having it. 

So ikigai I think is in a basic sense, it means having something that makes life worth living, something that gives you the motivation to live and in this sense, I think people who are perceived to be at threat might be particularly those who are about to retire. So if you were finding your structure, your will to live, your motivation, your social role, your sense of fulfilment in your job for many, many years, but also these jobs may have been encompassing working long hours, which did not necessarily leave much space to create ties into community and have a rich social life outside the company. Once one retires, it might be a little bit difficult and one might feel a sense of loss. 

So I think there was the sense that for those people who are finding themselves in the situation, ikigai then becomes a problem and that sense in the public discourse, ikigai is, particularly at that time where there was sort of an ikigai boom in literature, this understanding that ikigai only comes to the fore, when it is a little bit of an issue and otherwise, sort of slips into the background, and it's just something that people will be able, to the extent that we were feeling like we're living, we do tend to have some sort of thing that pushes us along and this doesn't have to be a grand thing, this doesn't have to be something huge, they're all just things that get us out of bed in the morning and multiple things. 

When I tried talking to my older friends, and my research participants in my work about ikigai often they didn't want to talk about it, they didn’t feel like they had anything particular to say that they're at this point is especially for older people. So at this point, it is about finding enjoyable things, finding something that's fun, and something that's 'tanoshii' that will enrich your life as well. So in that sense, we could say that was quite important and seen as quite important, there is a little bit of a duty to take up hobbies to grow, to continue to pursue something, to achieve some progress in self-development. 

Self-development here isn't seen as a selfish thing, it isn't seen as something that is very much self-oriented, it's almost seen as a duty. To the extent that if we are looking after ourselves, if we are feeling well, if we are doing things that are worthwhile, then we're not going to be a burden on others. That is then particularly important for elders. So it's important that elders pursue their ikigai a little bit more actively because they want to avoid becoming a burden.

So you would find that a city hall would organize ikigai school, but really what ikigai school was just a range of various social groups, where one can either pursue traditional arts or theatre get together to reminisce about the past or have a sports group to do a little bit of exercise together. We can see that even though it is presented as self-development, it is quite social. So it's always about kind of joining in and doing things with others as well in this usage. Instead of everyday use, I think it was more about finding something that will move you along that will make your life liveable.

Nick: Yeah, it's such a contrast to the misinterpretation to the west and it's interesting how you point out perhaps when they do talk about it or consider, it sort of suggests that they don't have an ikigai at that time, hence maybe the need to think or discuss it. But I do like this idea that it can be a spectrum of just small things, personal things. In the West, when we think about self-cultivation there's this tendency for it to be, I'm going to be the best version of myself, whereas, in Japan, it can be the pursuit of a creative hobby. It doesn't have to be about achieving anything. 

Doing things properly

It's more just pursuing something and something you touch on in the paper is this idea of doing things properly. That some Japanese their hobbies become more than hobbies,  they become a practice and it was important for them to not be sloppy, and do them 'chanto suru' and I was also wondering if It gets to the point of kodawari, where they take extreme care of the fine details of the hobby for arranging or painting or calligraphy.

Iza: I think this is a very important point thank you for bringing that up, I think that not only is that important because of course, among older Japanese maybe we'll find some people who no longer wish to find a new hobby as well or there might be continuing with their hobbies but there's this is a sort of an attitude to life that doing things properly could be seen as attention to form. So whatever you do, you attend to how you do it and that to newcomers to Japan, might seem rather oppressive as well. 

So when I started working in the community I was very quickly instructed with great attention and care on how to serve a cup of coffee, or how to serve a cup of tea and at what angle this teaspoon needs to be on the plate and that may seem overwhelming at first, it may seem difficult, but it is a form of mastery. So as you become better at it, the better you become at it, the more second nature it becomes and of course, the easier it gets and more enjoyable one can get out of it, anything you're doing well, you can get a sense of enjoyment from it. 

So there's this sense that in every sphere of life, one can do things properly, one can water the flowers properly, one can put out the rubbish properly, as I'm sure anyone who's been to Japan will realize that there are 17 types of rubbish depending on which municipality you are in but sorting the rubbish is a complicated process, but doing it properly gives you a sense of getting things done well. 

There's something really interesting about how this then plays out that if you are doing something masterfully, really well, whether that be a complex activity, such as calligraphy, or whether it be something very mundane, you have to attend to what you're doing and in doing that, I think one has very little space to be concerned or think about worries about the future. 

They offer some respite, and for older people that I worked with this was an important part of living well, because it allowed them the space to be in the moment as well as being engrossed in what they're doing. It offers a space of calm and peaceful appreciation and aesthetic appreciation of the world as well. So that then is brought back into balance with other sense-making activities, where we do piece together a life as a whole, or try and make sense of it as a whole, but I think this was an important counterbalance to that.

Nick: It's something that's always been on my mind is how the Japanese can be present for extended periods of time in their work, regardless of age and there's no mindfulness boom or anything like that when they work. I love going to Japan because when you get served, you get served, so whether you're in a convenience store or at a restaurant, they do appear to take pride in their work, or they just do things properly with care. 

It's horrible when I come back to Australia because I go to the local supermarket and you go to be served and the staff are talking to each other as they're serving you and you're almost not there. Whereas I've had countless experiences in Japan where I've asked someone for directions and they'll take me to the place rather than just give me directions. When I've taken friends to Japan, they are astounded at the level of service and care. 

Japanese do have this ability to be present at the moment, and they can be in the moment for quite a long time. So I guess that comes naturally to them as they get older when they do perhaps have far more free time to pursue a new hobby or finally do something once they've retired or stopped raising children. But it was interesting how you said for some of them when they do leave work, they've lost their ikigai and then they have to, they have to find another one. 


There's so much we could talk about on this subject, I do have a lot of notes. I wanted to go back to this, this word, 'meiwaku', which is related to this idea of being a burden. It's taken me a long time to appreciate this word, I have this one memory. 

My son was born in Japan and he spent one year at Hoi kuen, the first year of their schooling. I used to walk into school and it was quite hard to say goodbye to him because he was so gorgeous and cute and we'd be holding hands between the fence or be hugging him. So I'm saying goodbye to him one day and then there was a father next to me looking down at his daughter, and he was sort of smoking a cigarette and he's like, "mei waku kakenai de" to his daughter like don't cause trouble today I guess, is how you would translate it. I think in a way he was sort of expressing the same thing I was but very differently but I just couldn't believe you would say that to your gorgeous little daughter, don't cause trouble today. 

So this word is really interesting, and it is something Japanese are very concerned about whether or not they're causing trouble to others. So in the context of your study group who were elderly, how did this play out in their relationships?

Iza: That's a really good question and I think in so many ways, the sense that one doesn't want to cause trouble for others, doesn't want to be a burden was ever-present. I think to not be a burden on one's children, for instance, which I think was a very widespread concern. They cultivated numerous ties and links and in fact, we do tend to in the public discourse in the media, we tend to think of older ages, as the time when older people require care, they were more recipients of care. 

But I think that was very noticeable is the amount of care that was present from the side of these older people, sometimes some of the oldest people in a way that they're trying to look out for others, trying to keep track of who is where whether they've not seen someone for several days, trying to find someone who they could then ask if they could go and check upon them, all the things that they might not be able to do but all these things, if you wish emotional labour, they are a form of care. Just because they couldn't do something physically didn't mean that they didn't try and find the way for it to get done. To take away that burden, overthinking from others. 

So I think in that sense, the caring relationships were ever-present in everyday life. They try and find ways to help others and find the appropriate kinds of information. Keep in mind, remember, this person was looking for socks, I saw some good socks on sale, keeping other people's lives in mind and taking their point of view was important. So in that sense, of course, we have to recognize what you were talking about the service and being amazing.

I think we also have to recognize that sort of attention to not being a burden or to doing things well, for others that are also a form of effort, and form of care. So I think that was very, very noticeable among my older friends that are trying to distribute that, so instead of thinking about themselves as independent, they certainly were trying to cultivate multiple ties, and multiple relationships, a form of interdependence, with many people, rather than becoming overly dependent on one person or one source of support or help which would then be a burden.

Another thing, I think that was interesting in the context of meiwaku, not causing trouble, I was reminded we were talking about attending to things and doing things properly becomes their second nature, I think it is precisely because, as you described, from a very early age, it's socialized to pay attention to how it would be for the other person, what that might mean for the other person, and what burden might impose on them. So I think these two things are very much related. 

I think it also goes to show that these balancing acts that are required to live well. On one hand, they seem to entail things that are, to an extent intention, but they're also about things that cannot exist one without another, there isn't any autonomy or independence without dependence, it is all about interdependence. So in that sense, trying to understand that the polar opposites, I'm just this independent entities, that they're all kind of ends of the spectrum that are mutually implied and mutually constitutive of one another and I think that is the dynamic of meiwaku and avoiding it and trying to think of others. They're very closely related to one another.

Nick: It must have been amazing and fascinating to spend over a year with these groups of what I imagined lovely people and learning, perhaps even experience what you had read or had learnt about, but seeing it in action daily. Japanese do seem to always be thinking of others and it's not always this idea of meiwaku, am I causing trouble, they also are very thoughtful, and think of others and almost anticipate what someone might need or they are reminded of a problem this person has. As you mentioned I might go get some socks because they heard in a conversation my socks have holes in them or something. 

You have all these themes in this paper, for example, intimacy, and independence, which again, highlights these themes of balancing opposing ideas but they're also connected. I've got so many questions, it could be a very long podcast but in your paper, you highlight a tension between intimacy and dependence on others for various kinds of support, including emotional, and then maintaining a degree of autonomy and a sense of freedom. When I read that, that reminded me again of what Kamiya Mikko describes as ikigai needs the need for autonomy, the need for a sense of freedom, but also the need for hankyou, which is having intimate relationships or being accepted by others. 

It seems that once retired, Japanese have this desire or even natural tendency to want to explore ikigai or experience ikigaikan, the feeling of ikigai. So for me reading your paper, which you don't mention ikigai in the paper at all, it highlighted all these elements of ikigai that I've been researching. So I think you encapsulate all these themes so well, and you laid it out well. I think that's why it was for me, I needed to step away from it because it gave me so much to think about. I had to put it down and thought I can't read anymore. I've got all these thoughts that were rushing in my head like that happens in Japan and this is how the Japanese behave. 

So that article or paper I'm not sure how to describe it, but how long did it take you to write? I think it would have taken you a long time. It's like a mini-thesis or a mini dissertation.

Iza: That is an article that came out directly from the conclusion of my doctoral thesis, so it's closely related to the conclusion. Now, if you find that very thin, you might find the book much easier to read and that it encapsulates all those things, but all those things are elaborated one in each chapter of the book. So in that sense, I think the book gives a lot more examples, it gives a lot more elaboration and this is all of that work in a nutshell condensed and abbreviated.

Nick: I'll promise to read your book if you promise to come back on. 

Iza: Fantastic. Yes. 

Nick: That's a recent book, that was something you only published last year.

Iza: The dynamic of academic publishing.

Nick: How long did it take you to write?

Iza: I'm not entirely sure. I think the thesis took several years and then, of course, some more changes took a few more years, which takes a little while.

Nick: You're working on a new book as well. I believe the title is The ends of life, time and meaning in later years'.

Iza: That just came out actually, it's a special issue of Journal of anthropology and aging, which is a lovely open access journal. So it means anyone can access those.

Nick: You are working on a book now, aren’t you?

Iza: I'm working on a book for Cambridge University on wellbeing. So I'm looking at well being through the lenses of conviviality, or living well together, care and creativity. It will be sort of a short book.

Nick: That's not specifically on any culture or just sort of in general?

Iza: Yes, that's right. So it's not drawing solely on my graphic examples from Japan, but also on a range of other sources in anthropology. So having realized that there's not a whole lot written in anthropology, or social sciences, on wellbeing or in happiness, and I realized that in fact, these are the core of many of the things that they work on.

So to write about it, I picked several frameworks which are closely related to happiness and well being, but theoretical frameworks like care, lots have been written about care. A lot has been written about creativity, for instance, and there's quite a bit written about conviviality or living well together, and this framework kind of brings together the social, the political, the intimate, the aesthetic. 

So in a way, I think what it does is, it starts to break down these boundaries of different fields in which we study particular topics. So we tend to think of politics as somewhat separate from economics, is somewhat separate from morality, is somewhat separate from aesthetic and frameworks such as conviviality brings those together. Care similarly is integrative. Rather than thinking how these independent individuals then come to form a society and come to live together, by attending to care and realizing that we need care, in order to survive. 

From the moment we're born what is highlighted is this deep relationality of people and the way that we're mutually constituting one another. So that is something that I also wanted to mention, in relation to this work for, with all the Japanese in Osaka, the importance of others. So for living well for them, one of the things that we noticed quite strongly was the sense that if you listen to a life story from another person, they will highlight the importance of others in their stories. 

Similarly, whereas they were very reluctant to speak of happiness or even about being satisfied, even if you were to ask how satisfied you are with your life, you'd often get an answer something along the lines quite as far as saying that I'm satisfied. That isn't seen as slightly inappropriate, maybe bragging but also not in their sphere of interest, but often came out these extensive conversations why people were giving their life story, often towards the end, they would stop and think for a moment. After a pause, they would say something along the lines of living a good life, and I'm grateful for it. If they're reflected in some difficulty, they might highlight how grateful they are for that because of what they've learned or the challenge precipitated for them. 

So I think that gratitude is quite important precisely because of this relational quality that it has, it reminds us that we live with others and that we owe a great debt of gratitude to a great many other people. I think that puts one in a very different frame of mind. 

Naikan therapy

So there's even this form of therapy that I found that I've not been able to study it myself, but I've read about it. It's a very specific endeavour, but it kind of encapsulates something of this gratitude, the centrality of gratitude for well being, for happiness. The sense that in this Naikan therapy, which Naikan means introspection, people undertake reflections over several days. 

Over the course of several days, participants are required to reflect on their lives in relation to three central questions, all of which revolve around the issue of who do you owe something to, and how much they've done for you, and how much trouble, meiwaku, have you caused them. Restructuring your own life story, because stories we tell ourselves sometimes solidify, they sort of stratified themselves into sort of a stagnated form. If that's the story of suffering, then that may come to the finals. So I think it is said that if you shake up your life story, and think of it from a different angle, how much have you received, how much have others done for you, you tend to see very different parts of that life story.

People describe a very strong response that people had, but it's a relatively unusual practise, it's not very widespread. I've noticed similar sort of standards in the way that people spoke about their lives in the way, even the language itself compels you to recognize that it would be almost impossible to say I volunteered in this NGO in this cafe, in order to be at least Japanese, I would have to say I had an opportunity to do so, I was given the chance to do so. Now, the very form compels me to consider the importance of others and how interrelated we all are. I think that has very wide-reaching consequences for the well being and for the kinds of things that you're exploring.

Nick: I had a question for you, but to touch on Naikan, when I engaged with my wife, she was working at a hotel and as part of the training, she had to go and do like a five-day therapy session and outside of the sessions, I wouldn't call them counselling sessions, but the reflective question sessions where they sit down with a total stranger, and they start off saying, tell me your first memory of your mother, and then they go into telling me what she did for you. Outside of that, they weren't allowed to talk to anyone, so it seemed a very intense process of learning about yourself and understanding what others had done for you. 

It is gaining some popularity, I think. The third question of what trouble have you caused for others? I think it's going to just surprise people, because the first thing they'd want to say is, I'm not causing trouble for anyone. So it's something I recommend to our listeners, maybe Google, Google Naikan therapy and look at the three questions. One question I wanted to ask you was, did that experience and just living in Japan, did that make you appreciate life and the things in life more? Because I know that it did for me.

Iza: Yes. No doubt, in many ways. Not just the attention to detail, but certainly this particular attention to others and their involvement in our lives, but also the way that we relate to objects. Some of the older people in the salon would sometimes bring things to give to others and they said it's good to find an object a home I'm not using anymore. It's better for it to be used and to be looked after and for it to be had, but also, it's good if I give it to someone now, and I can see that they're enjoying it rather than someone inheriting it later and I don't get to see that in a sense, that objects are important and they need to be looked after. Not just in the way when you dispose of it. People certainly do that, they try to find a thoughtful use for an object or give it to someone who might have a use for it. 

I think in today's world of the Anthropocene, the excess of a lot of objects, I think that attitude of considering the uses of things and the good service then they offer us as well gives us a different attitude to our environment, one that is not purely destructive and consumerism as well, doesn’t get me wrong, I don't want to romanticize the Japanese context, like people are as consumers than anyone else and people have lots of objects, and they're not always very careful. But in the sense that there are certain attitudes that I find useful. That attitude of gratitude, I found it very interesting.

Nick: Yes, I found it with food. Just so many memories of my Japanese friends appreciating just the meal, outside of the expressions that they say before and after eating, they'd be saying, this is so delicious, and they would look so happy whether it was a bowl of ramen or, just a small piece of cheesecake. They seemed joyful and happy at that moment, and very appreciative of it. Whereas I'd want a second serve cheesecake. So it certainly taught me a lot. 

These little things, and how they come to us and the work that's involved behind the things we have. We never meet all the people involved in the objects that are made for us or the food that's created for us, but the Japanese seem to have an awareness of that more than I certainly do. So it is a powerful learning experience when you live in a country where you see expressions of gratitude daily, and they are sincere and honest. 

We were meant to go back to Japan for a trip this year and I was so looking forward to it but obviously, we couldn't go. So I do look forward to going back to Japan, as I'm sure you do. Do you have plans to go back anytime soon, assuming the world gets back to normal?

Yeah, certainly. I was supposed to be there now. So we'll see when the opportunity arises. I'm keeping an eye out and trying to move things along, but it's hard to predict things. 

Nick: I usually end my podcast with a question, what is your ikigai? So if you don't mind sharing, please do.

Iza: It's difficult to encapsulate it but I think the current situation very much diverted to the core that close relationships and even non-close ones, but kind of valuable, more distant relationships that one has with some acquaintances as well, are such a rich and important part of my life. I knew that before, but I think it became more apparent in this current situation, that family, friends and even acquaintances, so enduring valuable social relationships are a very strong part of my life. 

Also having other pursuits, research and passion for research and teaching, I was privileged to have a job that I genuinely enjoy and enjoy most aspects of it quite deeply. Other creative pursuits, I think the open-ended pursuits that don't necessarily have an output. So if you're creating artwork, for instance, it's not about knowing so much in my mind, what is going to come out, but enjoying that process of making it. I think those three elements, I'd say come together.

Nick: It sounds very familiar, I've got a friend who's an old school friend, his one of the very few old school friends I catch up with and he lives locally and he just announced that he's moving to Queensland. He's got kids, and he's busy, and I'm busy so when we catch up, we enjoy the time together, even if it's half an hour. He's leaving this week and I can't see him because he's too busy. When you realize, I'm not going to be able to catch up, I can't just drive over, you can't drive over it makes you realise another friend is moving on, and we'll be able to catch up sure, but it's a lot harder to do that. 

So you do realize, this pandemic and all the restrictions we've had makes you realize it's not material things, it's this intimacy in relationships, whether it's a good friend or even just an acquaintance, there's some level of intimacy in the conversations you have or interactions you have. I appreciated your research. I wasn't very academic at school but I'm beginning to enjoy researching and learning, especially when you study one topic in such great detail. It's fascinating, and I have a thirst for learning more.  That's why interviewing people on podcasts while it's very challenging, I want to be respectful and I read the work of my guests and spend a lot of time preparing questions. Then afterwards, I have to edit the podcast and transcribe it. It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it. So thank you for the research you've done for 1000s of people who I'm sure read your work.

Iza: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me today. It is very interesting and I'm very grateful for having an opportunity to talk to you, excellent questions to think about. That's something we can also be very happy about, this technology and shared interests, can bring us together with other interesting people. I was very glad to meet you. Thank you.

Nick: Thank you. So I would love to do this again. So I will keep in touch and I've got so many things to read. But I will get your book and I am excited about your new book too. So let's keep in touch and maybe we can discuss that as well in a future episode.

Iza: Fantastic. Thank you very much.

Nick: Thank you.

Iza: Thanks, bye-bye.

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