64 – Unveiling a Larger Meaning of Life and Death with Prof. Gordon Mathews

If you died right now, what do you think would happen to you?

This is a question that many people have explored, yet a clear answer remains elusive. No one knows for certain if life after death truly exists, but contemplating the possibility can imbue our lives with greater meaning.

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick speaks with Gordon Mathews about finding greater meaning in life through the concept of life after death.

Prioritizing emotions over logic

"One of the moving interviews I had was with a woman who had lost her husband when he was in his 30s. And now she was in her 50s, but she was talking to him every day at the family altar and also at the grave when she visited it. And I asked her look, do you really think you can communicate with him? 

And she said, ‘Look, I work in computers. I'm a rationalist. I'm a scientist. So of course I wouldn’t. But I know I will. Despite the logic that tells me no, I know that I'm going to talk to him again. I'm certain I will, and I'm certainly I can talk to him at the altar. So hope is against logic and hope tends to win out very often — emotion wins out which I find really moving." - Prof. Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews

Gordon Mathews is an author and professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has written several books, including What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, which was explored in episode 2 of the Ikigai Podcast.


NEW BOOK - Life After Death Today in the United States, Japan, and China

Email - cmgordon@cuhk.edu.hk

Podcast Highlights

Looking at the senses of life and death

Gordon recently published a new book titled After Death Today in the United States, Japan, and China. His book explores the theme of a larger meaning by examining the senses of life and death.

In his previous book, What Makes Life Worth Living? his interviewees talked about finding ikigai in their work, family, or their dreams. Although these things motivate people, there is a possibility that these sources of ikigai may vanish. That is why Gordon decided to delve deeper into life after death and what it means.

A focus on three ethnographies

“For many people in the United States, Japan, and China, what they imagine about life after death significantly shapes how they think and live before death, and how they create the social world around them.” - Gordon Mathews

Life after Death Ikigai Tribe

Gordon's book focuses on three countries: the US, Japan, and China. Aside from having lived in and experiencing the cultures of these countries, he points out that they are also the world's three biggest economies. People work hard in these countries to make their economy grow, but why would it matter if, in the end, they will encounter death?

He asked his interviewees questions such as:

  • If you died right now, what do you think would happen to you?

  • What do you think happens to you after you die? How certain are you of this?

  • How often do you think about what might happen to you after you die?

  • If you believe that there’s no life after death, what do you think will be left of your existence after you die?

  • What, if anything, do you think may last beyond your time on Earth?

Each of the three societies has a different perception on the idea of life after death.

Life after death in Japan

In Gordon's interviews, compared to the Americans and Chinese, the Japanese are more open to the topic of life after death. Gordon argues that, rather than being a matter of belief, in Japan, it's more of a practice. For instance, ancestor veneration is a custom for them, where they worship and talk to their deceased loved ones at a butsudan - a Buddhist altar. For the Japanese, it is more of a hope of being able to communicate with their deceased loved ones again.

“In terms of life after death and sense of life after death, Japan is an ideal society. Because there’s so much room for hope and believing what you want.” - Gordon Mathews

Life after Death in Japan

Life after death and religion

One significant factor that influences the belief in life after death within these three societies is their respective religious practices. The majority of the US population adheres to Christianity, while atheism is more prevalent in China, and Buddhism holds significant prominence in Japan.

According to Mathews, 500 years ago, almost everybody believed in a life after death based on the religion they followed. However, people's views have since changed, largely because human life is considered to be pretty good, and some individuals don't feel the need for an afterlife.

Different views on death

Each of Mathews’ interviewees had a different opinion on life after death. For instance, a retired salaryman in his 70s shared his fear of death, pondering the uncertainties of what happens after we die. In contrast, a coffee shop owner in his 50s emphasised the importance of not dwelling too much on death but rather focusing on living in the present moment.

Death as the last chance for self-realisation

In his book, Gordon shared a quote from the Japanese author Hinohara Shigeaki's book Inochi to ikigai (Life and what makes life worth living).

“Death is the final chance you have to show who you really are…Death is the last chance you have for self-realisation.”

We cannot escape death; eventually, we will all depart from this world. This realisation urges us to live life to the fullest so that, when looking back, we will have no regrets, knowing we have lived an interesting life.

This is especially true for people who have terminal illnesses or are on their deathbeds; the awareness of being close to death makes them reflect on their lives. As the ikigai pioneer researcher, Mieko Kamiya, mentioned in her book Ikigai-ni-tsuite:

“Maybe the only people among us who are really alive are those who have terminal cancer, because they can experience things in the way that the rest of us just can’t.”

How technology is changing the definition of life

Hundreds of years ago, life expectancy was between the ages of 35 and 40. But now, in the modern era, an average person can live up to 80 with the help of technological advancements. Gordon believes that this significant increase in life expectancy is the reason why life after death has become much less meaningful for a lot of people – they do not encounter death directly as frequently as before.

“With technology, we’re potentially seeing ourselves live much longer. There are some people who believe that we can live forever. If that’s the case, how does that impact our ikigai or our meaning of life? Will we value life less if we can live forever or get a reboot every time we die?” - Nicholas Kemp

Live Forever?

With the rise of technology, the question of what ikigai is going to mean in the future will become a more significant issue. That's why studies on the impact of AI (Artificial Intelligence) on the quality of life are essential, as discussed in episode 54: 'The Impact of Technology on Our Ikigai Sources,' and episode 63: 'Co-designing Companion Robots: Enhancing Ikigai for Older Adults.'


There is uncertainty about whether there truly is life after death or what awaits us after we pass away. But what we can be sure of is that we have been granted a life to live, and we must cherish every moment of it, so that in the end, we will have no regrets, knowing that we have lived life with an abundance of ikigai.