Ikigai: A Culturally Rooted Word

How to best define ikigai?

Ikigai is a multifaceted concept that can be understood and defined in various ways. Jamila Rodrigues highlights that ikigai is a term deeply rooted in Japanese culture and its meaning may vary depending on the context and the person interpreting it.

Defining ikigai

Nick: We'll move on to this really interesting question and one even I struggled to define. And that's how would you define ikigai? After all these interviews and all these research you have done? I think it's quite a hard question to answer.

Jamila: Yeah, I mean, everyone has their own definitions. I think we might all come down to the same answer, potentially. But because it's so difficult to define, and as I told you before, I'm going to use another word, which is also a cultural word.

So in Portuguese, and also in the Creole language, we have the word saudade. Now, saudade, it's a word that can be defined as a kind of nostalgic feeling caused by distance by something or by someone.

An absence of a person, you know, when someone dies, or an absence of not being in a place, or the desire of going to certain experiences, situations. But there's no conqual, real definition of this word saudade, because it's really rooted in the Portuguese language.

And Mozambique people, Cape words, Brazilians, all Portuguese speaking cultures, they understand the word, but we can't really translate. And I was talking to another colleague of mine, Igor de Almeida, he works at Kyoto University, and we were talking about this ikigai idea. And he was the one who said to me, 'Well, it's a little bit like saudade, isn't it?'

So it's a concept that is culturally rooted. Everyone knows, but no one speaks about it. So if you ask me what saudade is, you know, I'll just give you the explanation, but there's no concrete because it's something that I feel.

So ikigai in that sense might be a way of life, a sense of mission, a sense of life meaning. But it can also just be general well-being, right? Or about the things that you want to do or that you envision to do, or that you like to do.

My idea as a dancer and working on body studies and embodiment is that just as saudade, I feel it in my body, I feel that ikigai is also corporeal feeling, so it's a bodily sensation. And I understood that also, not just because I had this hypothesis, but also doing field work with my participants and finding out about their ideas of ikigai, and how are they expressing ikigai.

Nick: There you go. I think you just proved how complex it is, and how in some cases, I guess, if we're fortunate enough to learn and speak maybe multiple languages, we might come across similar words. And that saudade, is that right?

Jamila: Yeah, saudade.

Nick: That actually sounds very similar to the word natsukashii, that idea of nostalgia and longing. And that is a component of ikigai. That even memories can be a source of ikigai for some people. And that's, yeah, I remember when I first went to Japan, and when I started going out with friends, I would occasionally hear this word, natsukashii, and as you know, Japanese often just speak in verbs or adjectives.

And I was trying to work out, what does this word mean? And we don't say something like, 'Oh, how nostalgic', we would have to say, 'Oh, that candy. I love that candy, I used to eat that candy in my childhood.'

But Japanese can work it out from context. And that's the fascinating thing about I guess languages, and for me, Japanese. So it is a complex concept. But it's something ,I guess, quite intuitive. Obviously for some Japanese they just grow up with it. So it's fascinating.