Ikigai is the Sparks of Life

Ikigai is one of the templates Rie Takeda used in her book as a guide for people who wants to practise shodo. It is a concept that has been gaining attention in other cultures, and she hopes that people will understand better this wonderful concept from Japan.

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Ikigai has a very deep meaning

Nick: Something that's in your book, and it's one of my favourite words is ikigai. I love how you described it. How did you describe ikigai?

Rie: I said the sparks of life.

Nick: That's beautiful. Yeah. Because that's what it is to you.

Rie: That's what it is to me. What do you think of the explanation that I wrote in the book?

Nick: When I saw it, I was like, oh, wow, that's a beautiful way to describe it. Because there is this debate on whether you can have only one true ikigai or like Ken Mogi describes ikigai as a spectrum of many things in your life that give your life value, meaning, purpose. 

But it's often described, and my other Japanese friends said ikigai is something that gives you a little lift. It gives you that little bit of extra energy, and other Japanese have said that it's this beautiful concept that's tied to your sense of self, your soul and your spirit. 

But yeah, sparks of life are nice, because it suggests that there's possibly more than one, and it gives you that ki or that energy. So I like it.

Rie: It's a very deep meaning, ikigai.

Nick: Yeah, I'm still learning a lot about it. What I found actually is that it's quite a challenging word to write when you use kanji. Like behind me, actually, you can see you're using the hiragana script. What I found is most people only write it as hiragana except for the first character, and they tend to write gai with hiragana script. 

I've heard a few things, I've heard it's masculine if you use the kanji, and it's more feminine just to write it in hiragana.

Rie: Just a pure visual flow.

Nick: This is interesting, because I'm sort of thinking this is fairly challenging. So, why did you choose ikigai? Is it meant to be a challenging one for your students and also, obviously, great meaning in the word?

Rie: I wanted to use a word which has started to be known outside Japan, so people have a bit of idea, but they do not really know the meaning, like wabi-sabi, sometimes very much in use, but still abstract. So you don't have a clear idea what it is. I wanted to pick one or two words like that. Also, when the meaning is nicely fit. 

So like this, I could show the pictogram and ideogram, just the background of the kanji and the meaning of it. The rest they can sort of think and throw their individual ikigai. But I just wanted to keep the factual frame.

Nick: The first two characters are from the verb ikiru. So you've got sho, but it's really ikiru and ru is essentially dropped. It's an interesting way, because you're combining the verb ikiru. You're dropping ru and then you're compounding it with gai. And gai is interesting because it has two characters. So the first character, what's that? Because I've read it means either armour or shell.

Rie: Well, it pictures the hard shell of a newly sprouted plant or tree. So it's the shell. But not only the turtle shell, or the shell from the seashell. It's the idea that when there's a new plant or tree, the sprout comes. There is the shell. So that's another sort of description of the shell.

Nick: Then the last character is interesting, because I don't think I've ever seen it before and understanding it means beautiful or pattern or represents a pattern or a beautiful pattern. But maybe it has other meanings.

Rie: It's the ideogram, right? So the upper part illustrates being divided into two in a symmetrical pattern. So when you see the kanji there is the middle part. Totally free -- empty. So combining the two together means the value and the beauty. So that's the developed meaning. And then gai is like the worth or value of something.

Nick: It's a fascinating word.

Rie: Abstract but it makes sense in a sort of broader way, right?

Nick: Well, it should make sense to me, because I do a whole podcast on it. I was very glad to see that in your book. And I love how you describe it as the sparks of life.