Ikigai and Okinawa

Ikigai is one of the Japanese terms greatly misunderstood in the West. Some believe that it originated from Okinawa and is related to longevity. However, these are all romanticized notions about the concept.

Nick Kemp details how ikigai is not a concept from Okinawa and is not about longevity.

It’s Nick Kemp here from the Ikigai Tribe. I’d like to talk about the romanticization of ikigai, specifically ikigai’s connection to Okinawa and longevity. 

It really started with Dan Buettner’s 2009 TED talk on How to live to be 100+. He’s very knowledgeable on longevity, diet, and healthy lifestyle; and his TED talk is very insightful and worth watching. So I recommend you to watch it.

Now, in the TED talk, he talks about “five blue zones.” One of those blue zones is Okinawa, in Japan. He mentions their diet, lifestyle, strong social bonds with the moai concept, and he introduces a word Okinawans use called ikigai, and describes it as the reason you get up in the morning.

This probably created a perception that ikigai is a word from Okinawa. I think he also related it to the fact that Okinawans don’t retire. The actual indigenous language of Okinawa is uchinaaguchi, and it’s an endangered language.

But ikigai is not a word from Okinawa, it’s actually just a regular Japanese word, and many Japanese would tell you that it’s not a special word – it’s just a normal word. There are many other words that have the suffix gai: yarigai, hatarakigai, and asobigai

So that was one misconception that ikigai is a word from Okinawa. Then we have the longevity connection. So at the time, most certainly in 1999, Okinawa did have the longest living people in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, by the year 2015, by prefecture, Okinawa had dropped to 27th  in terms of life expectancy. Then in 2020, Dan Buettner on the Rich Roll podcast revealed that due to the introduction of the Western diet, Okinawa has suffered the worst degeneration of all five blue zones.

It now has the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. It is the least healthy prefecture in Japan. So in the space of 20 years, it has gone from having the longest living people in the world, to now the least healthy prefecture in Japan. 

So going back to ikigai, we can see that the word’s being romanticised with its connection to Okinawa, and it’s not a word from Okinawa and it’s not really a word related to longevity.

Now, I certainly believe that if you have a sense, if you feel ikigai, that does give you a motivation to live and it does encourage healthy self care habits. So I think to some degree it would add, hopefully, years to your life. 

There’s really no evidence for this and I think if we limit the perception of ikigai to a romantic island lifestyle, we’re doing a disservice to the word, to Japanese culture, and also for us, an opportunity to learn and embrace ikigai.

So if you’d like to learn more about what ikigai really is about, in the context of Japanese culture, please go to ikigaitribe.com.


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