035 – What does it mean to be Japanese?

What differentiates Japanese culture from the West?

The Japanese culture has garnered significant interest from the West, leading many Western individuals to attempt an interpretation of Japanese culture that aligns with their personal beliefs. However, what does it truly entail to be Japanese?

In this episode of The Ikigai Podcast, Nick talks to Saori Okada on what it really means to be Japanese despite how the West interprets their culture.

The beauty of ikigai

"Japanese is so beautiful, because there are so many definitions that could be applied to a certain character. So iki does mean life, but it also means daily living, and also means life and death.

So it's more about our daily living, the fact that we are given a certain amount of time and our life is going to end that's a really important nuance. If we look at the specific definitions, it also gives us a hint.

Specifically, it means with the anticipation and hope that your results will be worth it. And so that's really key, because you don't know for sure what you're doing every day is going to be worth living. But that's actually part of the nuance and beauty of ikigai." - Saori Okada

Podcast Highlights

  • Saori’s background. At 1:59, Saori shares her background, being born in Japan, and moving to the United States.

  • Working in the US. At 9:50, Saori shares how she ended up working in the US, and how it differs from working in Japan.

  • Experiencing the best of both cultures. At 14:15, Saori talks about having a balance between Japanese and Western culture.

  • Ikigurushi. At 18:46, Nick and Saori talk about the term ikigurushi (hard to breathe).

  • Daily living in Japan. At 24:26, Nick and Saori talk about some Japanese having some difficulties in their daily lives, and how ikigai can be a solution for their problems.

  • The Western definition of ikigai. At 30:27, Saori shares where she came to know about the West’s fascination with ikigai, and shares her thoughts about it.

  • Definition of ikigai. At 39:26, Saori shares her definition of ikigai.

  • Onchi. At 44:02, the two talk about the term onchi (bad at singing), and Saori shares a story that relates it to the concept of ikigai.

  • Kokoro/asobigokoro. At 47:08, Saori explains what kokoro/asobigokoro means.

  • Connection of soul/spirit to ikigai. Saori shares how soul/spirit plays into ikigai, at 50:18.

  • Jibunrashi. At 1:01:26, the two discuss the concept of jibunrashi (being yourself).

  • Perfectionism. At 1:05:38, Saori shares how the idea of perfectionism impacted her life.

  • Until the Death of Me. At 1:09:04, Saori discusses her book about her journey and recovery from having an eating disorder.

  • Toxic positivity. At 1:20:22, Nick and Saori discuss toxic positivity, which Saori notices in coaching.

  • Mogami. At 1:26:12, Saori talks about Mogami, her coaching business.

  • On being Japanese. At 1:45:06, Saori shares what it means to be a Japanese.

  • Saori’s ikigai. Saori shares what her ikigai is, at 1:46:05.

Saori Okada

Saori Okada

Saori Okada is the founder and managing director of Mogami 最上 Ltd., a Japanese wellness company headquartered in London, UK; the mission of Mogami is to empower and liberate individuals to take back control of their wellness. Saori is also a certified Project Manager (PMP), Holistic Wellness Coach (CTNC), and Japanese calligrapher (gifted calligrapher name of Seisen 星洗). Before founding Mogami, she spent time living in NY working in the digital and market research space as a Director of Customer Success at Comscore. She is also passionate about staying active through sports (golfer, Muay Thai kickboxing, and pilates) and finding the best parks & Americanos in London.


Mogami's wellness art introduction - Kaki-zome 2022 Intention Setting event (Jan 15th, 2022)

Mogami's Instagram - Wellness art experiences x coaching.

Mogami's Website - Your sustainable wellness journey.

Until the Death of Me Book - A narrative memoir that follows the innocent beginnings of the author's eating disorder in adolescence and the 15 years of pain, suffering, self-discovery, and ultimately self-love that followed.

Saori’s background

Saori was born in Aomori, Japan, and lived there with her family until the age of four. They then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States, and stayed there for three years. At the age of eight, her family moved back to Tokyo, where she attended an international school. Upon growing up, Saori was able to reflect on both Japanese and Western culture. She was trained to speak fluently both in English and Japanese language.


Working in the US

Saori studied at the University of Virginia, where she took up a BS in commerce. After graduating she thought of exploring and taking on a new challenge, so she worked for a media measurement company in New York, worked in Canada for three years, and moved back to New York.

During the pandemic, she was able to work remotely from Japan, which allowed her to experience living in Japan as an adult. This experience helped her to get to know what she really wanted to do with her life, which led her to the decision to move to London.


Experiencing the best of both cultures

Growing up, it was a challenge for Saori to figure out which culture she would fit in, as both cultures made her feel like she’s not one or the other. However, as she got older, she had time to reflect and think it through that she is definitely Japanese — her roots are Japanese, and being able to experience the Western culture made her fully understand and embrace her Japanese roots more.


Ikigurushi (hard to breathe) means that the society that the Japanese people live in feels suffocating for them; they feel suffocated by the rigidness of the society’s expectations even though they were created with the best intentions. Saori relates it to her experience being an intern at a bank in Japan: whenever she went to work, she would feel constantly tense and have shallow breaths while trying to make sure that she got everyone’s orders right.

Daily living in Japan

The health metrics of Japan are very strong, hence they’re considered as a longevity nation. However, when it comes to work, some would end up being overworked, and salaries are not increasing, which results in difficulties in daily living in Japan.


Having a hard life means you still have ikigai. These life challenges, we make meaning of them, then we get a sense of what it means to fight for or care about something. Our challenges can be very meaningful in that we could discover who we really are. If we're lucky, we do find a sense that life is worth living. - Nicholas Kemp

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Ikigai In A Hard Life

Saori believes that ikigai can be one of the solutions for this problem. Having a reason for being can be an answer to living a hard life because it means that people’s lives are worth living. Having a hard life means people can still possess ikigai because life’s challenges could be also a tool for people to discover who they really are, and help them find a sense that life is worth living.

The Ikigai Venn Diagram

Saori first encountered the Ikigai Venn diagram when she attended a women's board about professional development, where the speaker shared some frameworks that they found helpful, and one of them is the Ikigai Venn Diagram. The second time was when her best friend, after conducting a purpose program, came to her and asked her about the ikigai framework; and the third time was when she was listening to a podcast about professional development and they were talking about the Ikigai Venn diagram.

She was shocked by how they define the concept of ikigai. It was disappointing for her knowing how wonderful the concept is, and defining it using a framework won’t do it any justice. Although saddened by how the Western defines ikigai, she was somewhat pleased that they take interest with the concept because, for her, it just shows that they are looking for ways to live a meaningful life. Nonetheless, she thinks that ikigai is not something to be defined in a diagram, it’s much more than that.

Definition of ikigai

Thing That Are Worth Suffering

Ikigai comes from iki (life) and gai (reason for being), so ikigai means “your reason for being.” Moreover, for the Japanese, a lot of definitions can be applied to a character; iki may also be defined as daily living, or life and death – so it is more about daily living: people are given a certain amount of time to live their lives.

The second word, gai, if people look for its deeper meaning, it is the anticipation and hope that the results will be worth it. Saori thinks that worth is different from the things that make people happy, because for her, happiness is fleeting, and people shouldn’t seek for something fleeting. In Japanese culture, living tough is not necessarily bad, they believe that certain things are worth suffering because it is going to be beneficial for them in the end – people appreciate ikigai when it is worth doing.


Saori shares a story to show how the Western interpretation of ikigai differs from its real definition: her friend enjoys singing but Saori would consider her as onchi (bad at singing). However, it doesn’t stop her friend from enjoying singing; they would go to karaoke and her friend would belt out a song. Although not good with it, she still finds joy in what she does. 

Saori thinks of it as one of the simple moments that can be considered as ikigai because ikigai is about what people do daily to live their authentic life, contrary to the Western’s definition, that it should be something that you’re good at, and that you get paid for.

Connection of soul/spirit to ikigai

We  must acknowledge and appreciate our soul to live a life of ikigai. When I look at the Venn Diagram, it's very much coming from the mind. The mind loves to try to make sense of the world. That's what it does and that's exactly what it's supposed to do. But the soul is something that is more of an inner knowing. If we want to really live a life worth living, we have to come to understand our should, which is really at the core of who we are. - Saori Okada

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Live A Life Of Ikigai

Kokoro means heart, but it also has an added element of the spirit/soul, and Saori thinks that people should acknowledge and appreciate their soul to live a life of ikigai. The Ikigai Venn Diagram is very much coming from the mind, and if people really want to live a life worth living, they have to fully understand their soul, which is the core of who they are – the soul is something of an inner knowing.


Jibunrashi (to be yourself), comes from two words: jibun (self) rashi (to be). Similar to ikigai, jibunrashi is a common term that they use in Japan daily. When Saori asked her dad about what it means to live a meaningful life, her dad answered that he thinks ikigai means to live a life where he could be himself – regardless of what circumstances he was born in, he just wanted to live a life where he was himself.


Perfectionism has become a problem for Saori. Growing up, she was often labeled as the “perfect girl” as she worked really hard — she would get straight A’s, and could do sports. However, it impacted her that she developed an eating disorder. She overcame it when she began to learn to appreciate her soul. 

She was able to understand that perfectionism is not how people can embrace authenticity, hence, they can learn the concept of wabi-sabi, which teaches people to accept that they are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete – accepting life as it is.
Connect With Nature

When people go out in nature, they have this opportunity to contemplate life. When people see nature in play, they’ll begin to understand it’s changing aspects and that it is fleeting, similar to the concept of wabi-sabi. So people must spend more time in nature by themselves away from their devices.

Until the Death of Me

As mentioned, Saori suffered from an eating disorder, so she was able to come up with the book, Until the Death of Me: A 15-year Eating Disorder Recovery Journey. Her book aims to help people struggling with the same illness; to make them feel that they’re not alone and that her journey could inspire them and give them some hope.

Toxic positivity

After getting an education on coaching, Saori became aware that a lot of coaches talk about the idea of toxic positivity: they would talk about how everything’s great, and people can quickly achieve their goals. Whereas in Japan, people believe that suffering is part of life’s journey and that it takes time before one can truly achieve his/her goals.



Saori is the founder and managing director of Mogami, a Japanese wellness company in London. Their overall mission is to empower individuals to achieve sustainable personal wellness lives. Her coaching approach is holistic wellness: the idea that people’s wellness comes from their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. The coaching program she offers is called sakura, which aims for people to blossom into their authentic selves.

It’s a 6-week program where they explore and build self-awareness from a holistic approach; they look at how people take care of their bodies and souls.

On being Japanese

When asked what it means to be Japanese, Saori states that it is learning to appreciate that people have body and soul — it is seeking fulfillment. She thinks that worth is a beautiful way of encapsulating what it means to be Japanese – they do things based on what they think is worth it, and also it is thinking about the others.

Saori’s ikigai

Saori’s ikigai is to live a life where she can be her authentic self, be able to express herself and empower others to do the same – to live sustainable wellness lives.


What differentiates Japanese culture from the West is the way they execute things. The Western culture is more focused on the mind – getting better results in a short period. Whereas in Japan, people give importance to every detail — all the small things that make up their entire life. They value even the challenges that they encounter, as they believe that suffering is part of their journey, which plays a vital role in discovering their ikigai – living a life worth living.