Ikigai Summit Discussion: Lack of Ikigai in Japan

While the concept of ikigai originated in Japan, it is believed that many Japanese individuals struggle to find their own ikigai, leading to issues such as hikikomori (social withdrawal) and kodokushi (lonely death).

During the Ikigai Summit, which was held in February 2023, Nick Kemp, the founder of Ikigai Tribe, was joined by a group of experts including Ken Mogi, Gordon Mathews, Sachiaki Takamiya, and Shinichi Nagata, to discuss the issue of the lack of ikigai in Japan.

The absence of ikigai in Japan

Nick: So I had a few ideas for this panel discussion: one was Gordon’s question on actually ‘Is there a lack of ikigai in Japan?’, and actually Jennifer Shinkai who was on my podcast, episode 51, pointed out that on Google trends, the most searched term related to ikigai is “ikigai nai‘. So that would suggest a lack of ikigai or no ikigai.

And as Gordon pointed out, in a country with such beautiful culture, and these philosophical, and what we could call as positive psychological concepts, why do they have these problems of social withdrawal, hikikomori, lonely deaths, kodokushi, and a few others we could mention, obviously loneliness.

So this is an interesting question. So was that roughly what you like to dive into, Gordon?

Gordon: Yeah, that’s exactly my question. It’s a huge one, because we have these wonderful concepts and yet we have a society that doesn’t seem to be building structures to enable people to attain it. Ken, you are absolutely right, when you bring up these Japanese companies that have these new management structures enabling their employees to speak up.

And yet, I still sense for most of my Japanese friends, that life is much more constraining than they would have hoped for. And, many Japanese now, too, continue to leave Japan for a society that is not as structured.

So I’m wondering how these all come together. Why isn’t Japan happier?

Ken: It’s quite fascinating what you asked. First, small print. When I I write a book about ikigai or nagomi, what I’m practically doing is writing well intended fantasy about Japan. I’m not realistic, actually. I’m a scientist, so in my research, I collect data and analyse data, so I would be in a totally different state of mind.

And if your read my Japanese twitter, in Japan I’m known for being a vocal critic of many status quo of the Japanese educational system, political system, and so on. But towards people from outside Japan, for example, if you are in Hong Kong, you probably have many friends, obviously, who know what the government is doing and so on. But when you look at Hong Kong from the outside, there are many wonderful things about Hong Kong.

I tend to believe that when you write a book like nagomi or ikigai, you would focus on the bright side of that country. That’s my job description, when I write a book in English. Having said that, there are some interesting Japanese psyche, what you could call Japanese understatements.

Japanese people tend to say that they’re not so happy, they are not so satisfied, even though deep down inside, they are actually happy and satisfied. They don’t want to boast or show things (off) to people. It’s a very Japanese way of keeping a low profile, if you like.

My suspicion is because these questionnaires on which research on happiness and so on are based are linguistic in nature. For example, this word “happy”, in Japanese, shiawase, these words do not necessarily mean the same thing in English or Japanese language.

Probably, Gordon, you are aware of all these wonderful research done on wellness and international compliance. But as somebody who was originally trained as a physicist, I have some really serious doubts about the relevance of these data in actually accessing the mindset of people from different cultural backgrounds.

So what is your reaction when I said that? Do you have any hunch or intuition?

Gordon: You’re absolutely right, and I’ve written about this myself, how surveys can be completely biased. And how happy are the Americans with the pursuit of happiness. “I’m happy. I’m happy. I’m happy.” For Japanese, it would be immodest to say “I’m happy.” Of course, you’re right. Absolutely. But on the other side of this is Japanese social structure seems to be designed to create extra unhappiness.

I mean, the fact that the discrimination against women which is much more market than any other societies. Lifetime employment still goes on. The fact that a young person in their late twenties who has joined a big company may despair of leaving. Now, a lot of this is changing, I know, certainly shushoku-katsudo ( job hunting), all these things are becoming less important in a new more neo-liberal Japan.

But I often felt that the social structure seems designed to lessen happiness, which is very curious in a society, as Nick was saying earlier, a culture that invented terms like ikigai, you’d think ikigai will be a far more socially constructive concept than it actually is.

Ken: Probably, ikigai would be more of a mission statement rather than the analysis of what is here already. Ikigai is definitely in Japanese culture, there’s no doubt about it. But as you say, there are many things that could be improved in Japanese society, as in many other societies, I’m sure you all have your own share of problems in Australia, too, Nick. We all have problems.

I think ikigai is the bright torch of light.

Gordon, I completely agree with your analysis of Japanese culture and Japanese society at present. And as I said, I’m a vocal critic of all these things in Japanese. Thank you, thank you for that.