How Ikigai and Resilience Intersect

Kei Tsuda highlights the similarities between ikigai and resilience, noting that facing life’s challenges enhances our resilience and deepens our experience of ikigai.

Life challenges can lead to discovering ikigai

Nick: Moving on, at the leprosarium, she began to hope that she could work there and devote herself to these leprosy patients. And again, she faced opposition from her father. Basically, he said no, so her decision was overruled. I think this caused a lot of frustration.

In her later life, she wrote about her frustration. So between the years of 1944 to 1949, she did become a student of Psychiatry at the University of Tokyo. Then, she married her future husband, Kamiya Noburo, they got married in 1946.

And for the next decade, she played the role of housewife and mother, while also teaching foreign languages and correcting the English language papers of her husband and his students. And she did not like that. So in several diary entries, from 1954, she expressed her frustration at being unable to pursue perhaps her most important source of ikigai due to these commitments.

She wrote: ‘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 of 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.’

So very frustrated writing that diary entry.

Kei: Yeah, and this has taken place at the post-war Japan, too. I think the war ended around 1945, I believe. So the country was in the middle of rebuilding, trying to find its footings. And that's when she was also trying to find her footings which is kind of interesting, it kind of overlaps.

But those words and struggle, is something that I think a lot of folks, even today, especially the mothers will probably share. I mean, it's been 56 years since our time, but her household responsibilities and how those things arranged, especially in Japan, I think still has a long way to go.

So in a way, she was already kind of pointing out the movement, that kind of later becomes the feminist movement and also the rights for women in Japan. Even though I don't think there's any record of her being directly participating in those activities, but I'm sure she may have influenced a lot of folks who may have come up, you know, grown after her, to voice their perspectives on these matters.

Nick: Yeah, I also think the entry indicates this struggle from a lack of shimeikan, like a sense of purpose. Some people might think, wow, she was already successful and achieving so many things. And who knows, maybe someone in her position might have enjoyed correcting English and teaching languages, but it obviously didn't give her the sense of purpose she was seeking, obviously, related to psychiatry, and helping lepers.

And there is a book, a biography on her life called, A Woman with Demons. And I was a bit shocked by the title of the book. But it was inspired actually by one of her diary entries where she said, ‘My demons are raging again today.’ And she was frustrated with life.

And, yeah, she had this incredible desire to really do something with her life, and help others who are less fortunate than her. But she also suffered a lot of loss and pain. So she even had several decades of depression due to the loss of her first love.

She fell in love with a young man. It was one of her brother's friends, and she really didn't even know him, she kind of just only had a few encounters with him, but fell in love with him. And he died of tuberculosis, I think. Then she battled, obviously multiple illnesses, tuberculosis, later cancer.

And she obviously lived almost two decades, or at least a decade living with the frustration of not being able to pursue work as a scholar and writer, and also, the battle she had with her father on wanting to help lepers.

So I think we could say she struggled in her life with a lack of ikigai for extended periods of time. So do you think all these life experiences and all this frustration helped to understand the multi-dimensional nature of ikigai?

Kei: Surely, more certainly. And I know, we'll be discussing Ikigai-ni-tsuite, the book in another episode. But the way she writes the book, yes, she does use the words or the phrases as if she's kind of uncovered through certain studies, but I feel that she is including her own experiences over it.

Even though she doesn't clearly state those things. Can I bring up a passage from the book? So there is a passage which says: ‘So the people encounter obstacles, again, two walls blocking their path in different forms, and at different times, throughout their lives. And they come to realize their power, those walls are really powerful. At such moments, the issue of finding ikigai inevitably arises, is a life filled with such sadness and suffering still worth living. What should one live for from now on?

And to your point, I think this was in her mind, if not all the time over the course of her life. And another thing I'm kind of drawing a correlation to is based on some of the readings I've been doing; is that it's the concept of resilience—psychologists and others cover it.

But I think this ikigai perspective is very similar to how the concept of resilience is discussed today. That the more often you encounter these kinds of life situations, the more resilient you will become. So, essentially, the people who face the disadvantages and challenges in their life situations especially like earlier in life tend to develop resilience much faster. And that's I think what took place here with Mieko Kamiya herself.