82 – The Life and Legacy of Mieko Kamiya with Kei Tsuda

Have you heard of the Mother of Ikigai?


While ikigai has gained recognition in the West, few are aware of the significant contributions made by Mieko Kamiya to its study. Who exactly is Mieko Kamiya, and what impact has she had on the study of ikigai?


In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, join Nick and Kei Tsuda as they explore the life and remarkable achievements of Mieko Kamiya.



Having different sources of ikigai

“Another observation I'm making is, I think Mieko Kamiya was already exposed to a lot of cultures and saw the world. And if you bring ourselves back to today, that's what's happening with a lot of young people. Now, they may not be going to places but through the devices and social networks and YouTube and whatever else, they are seeing so many different cultures and options. 


Now, the problem is, some of them are made up. It's like fake, and they're basically somewhat blown away by it. And you said it, today, there are so many options now that I think our young people are somewhat struggling to make up their mind as to what is going to be their ikigai.” - Kei Tsuda




Podcast Highlights


Kei Tsuda

Kei Tsuda

Kei Tsuda is a full-time scholar, researcher, blogger, and facilitator of the LinkedIn Ikigai Study Group. He shares his musings with anyone interested in learning and applying the Japanese concept of ikigai on LinkedIn and Medium.com. He is an ikigai consultant and uses engagement strategies and methodologies to assist individuals and organisations in cultivating change resilience.

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The Mother of Ikigai

Mieko Kamiya, the Mother of Ikigai, came from a wealthy family. Her parents initially opposed her ambition to become a doctor, but she didn’t give up, driven by her passion to aid those afflicted by mental illnesses, including leprosy patients. Over time, she diversified her pursuits, emerging as an accomplished author and translator, proficient in multiple languages such as French and English. Notably, she translated Marcus Aurelius's Meditations into Japanese from its original Greek.


Besides her work, she managed her family life well, being a caring wife and mother. She didn't only work as a doctor; she also taught psychiatry at universities and tutored Princess Michiko, who later became Empress.



Lack of widespread recognition in Japan

Despite her significant contributions to the study of ikigai, Mieko Kamiya wasn't well-known compared to other prominent figures in her field. However, in 2018, as ikigai gained traction in the West, the Japanese broadcast network NHK produced a special program highlighting Kamiya's work and life. This initiative facilitated broader recognition of her invaluable contributions to the understanding of ikigai.



Ikigai development advisors in Japan

Kei is currently undergoing a program to become an ikigai development advisor in Japan, and Kamiya's works were included in their textbook. This led Kei to realise that the concept of ikigai is applied differently as people age. Although ikigai is a common word in Japan, its significance in one’s life may vary according to age.


“We don't necessarily hear too often about ikigai among young Japanese, say college students and others. It is a commonly used word as we've been saying all along. But how often do they use it will probably differ by age” - Kei Tsuda


Ikigai among young Japanese


Mieko Kamiya’s early life

Kamiya had a very unconventional childhood. Her father being a diplomat, her family moved to Geneva, Switzerland when she was in fourth grade. She attended the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva, which provided her with unique education and exposure to the beauty of Swiss nature. However, she faced struggles due to societal judgments as a child of high society.


This experience led her to feel ashamed of her elite status and develop empathy towards those less fortunate. Kamiya reflected later in life that her time in Switzerland had a profound and lasting impact on her, shaping her cultural inclinations and identity.



First encounter with lepers

In 1933, Kamiya had her initial encounter with leprosy patients at a Christian gathering alongside her uncle. Witnessing individuals without limbs and others afflicted with severe skin inflammation came as a surprise to her. It was during this time that she observed the unwavering dedication of a professional nurse, Chiyo Mikami, which inspired her to commit herself to caring for the sick.



Contracting tuberculosis

At 21, after completing her secondary education in April 1935, Kamiya was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She retreated to her parents' cottage in Karuizawa, where she immersed herself in English literature, including Shakespeare, and prepared for a teaching certificate exam. Despite a brief recovery, her tuberculosis recurred in 1936, prompting her to fear for her life. Returning alone to the cottage, she taught herself Greek and Latin, delving into classical works by Plato and Homer, and even translated Marcus Aurelius' writings.


“She may have had quite a bit of influence from her upbringing. The fact that she continued to think in French over the years. I think that kind of fondness towards European culture was already ingrained in her. So I bet she didn't even feel any stress learning these additional languages or reading these great works of the past. She kind of probably found her ikigai already at that point.” - Kei Tsuda


Mieko Kamiya's Ikigai

Moving to America

After recovering in 1938 from tuberculosis, Kamiya and her family moved to New York. She enrolled at Columbia University to study classical Greek. Despite her father's initial resistance to her dream of becoming a doctor, a visit to the 1939 World Fair changed his mind. Witnessing her intense interest in human anatomy, he granted her permission to pursue medicine, with the condition that she avoid leprosy. Kamiya happily switched her major from classical Greek to medicine but secretly harboured a determination to work with leprosy patients.



Returning to Tokyo

During World War II, Kamiya returned to Tokyo to complete her medical studies. A year before graduation, she received national authorization to visit a leprosy research project. During her 12-day stay, she was appalled by the deplorable conditions: lack of effective medicines, poor treatments, and malnourished patients. 


This experience deepened her sense of responsibility towards leprosy patients, leading her to write a poignant poem expressing her solidarity and promise to support and comfort them, despite feeling her words might seem vain in comparison to their hardships.


Why you lepers? Not I. 

You carry all the burdens lepers carry. 

Being deprived of all that makes a comfortable life, 

You are constantly in torment, agony and desperation. 

I promise you that I will stand by you, support you and comfort you. 

Pray to God for you every night and morning. 

But at the same time I feel guilty about mentioning all these sweet words 

Because they sound “vain” to you, 

You, lepers, are the ones who really know what hardship is.



Experiencing disappointments

Despite her hopes to work with leprosy patients, Kamiya faced opposition from her father, leading to frustration. From 1944 to 1949, she studied Psychiatry at the University of Tokyo and married Noburo Kamiya in 1946. For the next decade, she balanced her roles as a housewife, mother, and language teacher while feeling unfulfilled. In diary entries from 1954, she expressed frustration at being unable to pursue her true passion for psychiatry and lamented the burdens of her current commitments, yearning for strength to overcome her challenges.


“A simple easy life wouldn't uncover these different sources of ikigai or we wouldn't gain this resilience. I always like to say that ikigai is not about happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of ikigai. It's a meaningful life. And I guess to have a meaningful life, we have to be challenged every once in a while.” - Nicholas Kemp


Life Challenges and Ikigai


Research on lepers

In 1956, Kamiya conducted research on lepers on Nagashima Aiseien, which later became the foundation for her dissertation and her career as a professor. Her study highlighted the psychological struggles of leprosy patients, particularly their sense of meaninglessness and despair about the future. 


Despite having their basic needs met, many felt a lack of purpose. However, some found meaning despite their circumstances. Kamiya's dedication to this work eventually earned her father's approval, allowing her to continue her work with lepers while balancing her commitment with her role as a mother.


 

Encouraging patients to express ikigai

Kamiya empowered leprosy patients to express themselves creatively, encouraging them to write, draw, and play music as a means of releasing sorrow and finding meaning in their lives. She supported their interests, such as teaching French and providing musical scores and instruments. One patient, Koichi Kondo, praised Kamiya for her genuine empathy and equal treatment:


“Dr. Kamiya sometimes came to our [the blind patients] meetings. As soon as she sat at the table, everybody got together to talk to her and listen to her. She spoke in a soft and kind way. There was not any difference between her and us. It was not merely sympathy or pity, but she always talked to us as if she were in the same situation as we were. She did not look down at us out of compassion at any time. That is why I think Dr. Kamiya was really great.”



Gaining deep connections with patients

Kamiya's dedication to her work fostered a deep connection with her patients. In 1972, at the age of 57, Kamiya retired from Nagashima Aiseien due to declining health. Despite her departure, she expressed a deep connection with the leprosy patients, referring to them as friends and expressing gratitude for the 15 years she spent with them. 


Even after retiring, she kept in touch with the patients until she passed away in 1978 at 65 due to heart failure. Her life, though relatively short, was rich with meaningful experiences and profound connections with those she served.



Conclusion

Kamiya’s life is truly rich and meaningful and can serve as an inspiration for many who are struggling to find purpose in their lives. Her journey reflects perseverance, discipline, and unwavering dedication to her work, ultimately leading to a deeper sense of ikigai. Her life and contributions truly deserve widespread recognition.

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