How Ikigai is a Greatly Misunderstood Word

Nick Kemp shares some insight from his upcoming book Ikigai-kan. In his book, he addresses some Western misconceptions about the concept of ikigai. His book offers an in-depth explanation of what ikigai is in the context of Japanese culture.

To learn more about the book, visit

Most of the knowledge out there about ikigai are Western misconceptions.

Nick: You may know I’m launching my book Ikigai-kan: Feel A Life Worth Living this month. I thought I’d share some insight into the book. So the first chapter is titled, Ikigai: A Misunderstood Word. So I’ll read from the chapter:

What is ikigai? Ikigai is a greatly misunderstood concept outside of Japan. It’s not a word from Okinawa, it’s not a Japanese secret to longevity, it’s not an entrepreneurial Venn diagram framework, it’s not the pursuit of the single life purpose, and it’s not something all Japanese have.”

So most of the knowledge out there on blogs and social media are Western misconceptions. Now on the subject of Okinawa, and the longevity connection, it was Dan Buettner who on a Ted Talk, talked about the longevity of Okinawans and this was in 2009, and his Ted Talk was titled “How to live to be 100+”

Dan is a National Geographic Fellow and famous for his book Blue Zones, five blue zones, one of which is Okinawa. Dan said, and I quotes:

In the Okinawan language, there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is ‘ikigai.’ And, roughly translated, it means ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning.’”

So Dan was right with his definition of ikigai. But ikigai certainly does not come from Okinawa. The indigenous language of Okinawa, uchinaguchi, I believe does not have a word for retirement. 

But retirement is something that Japanese people certainly do in Japan. In fact, many Japanese pursue their ikigai after they retire. Now, what is tragic and quite shocking is that Okinawa is no longer a blue zone. 

According to Buettner, in 1999, Okinawa was producing the longest-lived people in the history of the world. Tragically, today, Okinawa is the least healthy prefecture in all of Japan. 

And on the Rich Roll Podcast in March of 2020, Buettner revealed that due to the introduction of the Western diet, Okinawa has suffered the worst degeneration of all five blue zones, and now has the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. 

What was once the island of longevity, is now Japan’s fast food capital. So yeah, this is a tragedy, and it highlights, I think, that we don’t fully understand ikigai, and we have these misconceptions or romantic notions about what ikigai is. 

So if you like to understand ikigai in the context of Japanese culture, and you like the insights of Japanese researchers and authors, check out my book when it comes out. For notifications, please go to