034 – Reflections on the Life and Work of The Mother of Ikigai – Mieko Kamiya

In this episode I reflect on the life and work of professor, psychiatrist, researcher, linguist, translator and author, Mieko Kamiya. I’ll share quotes from Kamiya’s seminal book, Ikigai ni Tsuite, and her published diary as well as quotes from her biography by Yuzo Ota. I’ll also read passages from my own book, Ikigai-kan. Let’s dive in and reflect on the life and work of the Mother of Ikigai.

I could almost say that I had been living just to write this book

‘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!’ - Mieko Kamiya

Podcast Highlights

Nicholas Kemp

Nicholas Kemp is a father, husband, Japanologist, researcher, solopreneur, and author of IKIGAI-KAN: Feel a Life Worth Living. He is the founder and head coach of Ikigai Tribe, a small community of educators, psychologists, coaches, and trainers who serve their personal communities using the ikigai concept.

Plenty of Fathers, Yet So Few 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. 

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.

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!’

Writing Ikigai

The Life of Mieko Kamiya

Born on 12 January 1914, in Okayama prefecture, Kamiya had an unconventional childhood. The daughter of a diplomat, she lived in Geneva, Switzerland from her late childhood to mid 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 foreign 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.

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.’ - 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...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.’ - Mieko Kamiya

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.’ - Mieko Kamiya

Ikigai ni Tsuite

In Japanese, tsuite means ‘about; concerning; as to; regarding’, so a literal translation of Kamiya’s book is About Ikigai – but a more poetic translation is On the Meaning of Life or What Makes Life Worth Living.

In the introduction of her book, Kamiya presents the theme that there is suffering, with people all over the world dreading the thought and the act of waking up every morning. She then prompts the reader to consider two questions:

  • What makes us feel that life is worth living each and every day?
  • How do we find a new ikigai if we have lost our reason to live?

From her surveys of leprosy patients, Kamiya discovered that existential suffering was caused by feeling insignificant. This was a pattern that also emerged from her review of research on atomic bomb survivors, people with terminal illnesses, death row inmates and the bereaved. In fact, Kamiya believed that the problems lepers had were merely the same problems all human beings had, but expressed in a unique form.

Kamiya wrote that there is no ready-made answer to the question of what makes a person's life worth living, and that her book was not intended to impose any such answer on anyone. For Kamiya, her book was her way to explore the elusive concept of ikigai from various angles in the hope of getting as close as possible to the truth of what makes life worth living. What she did discover was that emotions were the most genuine aspect of ikigai. This realisation led to her unique definition of ikigai.

Ikigai and ikigai-kan

In her book, Kamiya provides a two-part definition of ikigai – her most recognised contribution to ikigai literature:

‘There are two ways of using the word ikigai. When someone says "this child is my ikigai," it refers to the source or target of ikigai, and when one feels ikigai as a state of mind. The latter of these is close to what Frankl calls "sense of meaning". Here I will tentatively call it "ikigai-kan" to distinguish it from the former "ikigai".'


The word ikigai, in other words, indicates the sources of meaning in your life: experiences, people, relationships, dreams, hobbies, and even memories that make your life worth living. Ikigai-kan, on the other hand, represents the emotions and feelings that these sources provide you that make you feel that life is worth living.

My Son is my Ikigai 

Taking the example Kamiya uses in her book, as a father, I can identify that my son is a source of ikigai, giving me ikigai-kan feelings of love, joy, pride, hope and connection, as well as a sense of purpose in my role as a father. According to Kamiya, the power of ikigai lies in the positive and satisfying emotions that result from being able to identify your sources of ikigai and, subsequently, the experience of a deep and genuine sense of meaning associated with your existence.

Something I would like to clear up is false claims that Viktor Frankl's work in some part inspired or influenced Mieko Kamiya’s model of ikigai. This simply is not true. While their literature shared similar perspectives on sense of meaning, which Kamiya recognised, in no way did Frankl or his psychotherapy, logotherapy, inspire or influence Kamiya’s work. It seems that through their own unique life experience and research that they came to hold similar perspectives on sense of meaning.

Also, any claims of Kamiya being The Mother Teresa to the Aiseien lepers is completely false. While she did attempt to improve living conditions at Aiseien, she did not dedicate her life to the well-being of lepers.

Kamiya stands on her own as a research pioneer, scholar, educator, linguist, translator and author. These misleading claims and romanticization take away from her life legacy and undermine her significant and unique contribution to well-being literature.

Kamiya had a long-held desire to express herself through writing. She understood that she could only pursue and fulfil this desire after establishing herself as a professor. Ultimately her mission was not to become a psychiatrist, but to write the book of her imagination. After visiting a Vincent Van Gogh exhibition in Kyoto on 20 December 1958, Kamiya wrote in her diary:

‘In the afternoon I went to the Van Gogh exhibition in Kyoto… I was overwhelmed by powerful green. I felt once again that I should devote myself to expression... At the exhibition and during my train ride home I continued to ruminate on this and repeated to myself, “Devote the rest of your life completely to this mission!” I should finish my dissertation as soon as possible so that I may embark on a work to fulfil my mission.’

The Ikigai of Writing

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.’

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.

Kamiya's Demons

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.’

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.’

Ikigai ni Tsuite

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.