Here’s a captivating conversation on the perception of ikigai in its country of origin, Japan. Exploring how the Japanese insight differs from the popularized perception, revealing that it may not hold as much significance in Japanese culture as commonly believed.
Is ikigai valued in Japan?
Nick: Let’s hear from Sachiaki. Sachiaki, you have the floor.
Sachiaki: First of all, thank you for inviting me to speak at this wonderful Ikigai Summit. I’m very honoured and very excited about it.
So I suppose, because ikigai has so many definitions, and maybe people have different perception of what ikigai is. But I think, when you look at ikigai, there’s kind of a personal level and a collective level. I think in Japan, as a sort of collective society, I don’t think personal ikigai is valued so much. We’re not really allowed to have pleasures and things in life so much.
That’s how I was taught. That’s how I was kind of brought up in schools, and maybe workplace, and everything. It’s more like we’re here to serve. We’re here to serve the community. If you work for a company, maybe to help building the company.
And if you’re in school, maybe you’re there to learn as a member of the group, to become constructive or useful in the entire school. Or because you’re a student, so you want to become a good adult, to serve the community or the country, and so on.
In many ways, the personal pleasure, even joy, is not regarded to be something important. I mean, you can probably have pleasures, but it’s not the main focus of our education or work.
In Japan, it’s true that somehow ikigai is not valued so much, in spite of the fact that ikigai is a Japanese concept and many people do have ikigai, as a socety, it is not something we can focus on. So in other words, ikigai is like being taken advantage by the establishment, or by kind of the body of an organisation, whether it’s a school, or the government, or the company.
Because if each can find a small happiness in whatever you’re doing, even though you’re in an oppress situation, then nobody will complain about the oppressor, because you look for the reason within yourself. Or it depends with your perception. And if you can feel happy about anything, then you’ll be happy.
But quite often, the problem maybe in the structure of the organisation, the way things are managed. Probably in the West, people are more willing to criticise the government, but in Japan, we try to find the answers within our own feelings.
But again, it’s one aspect of the Japanese culture. I don’t personally feel that many people are depressed or oppressed. I know a lot of people who are happy, people who have daily joys and pleasures in their lives. And some of them have even bigger life goals and missions, too. And they’re very excited and feel motivated to live.
So there are plenty of ikigai, but as a society, I think it is true that we don’t seem to value the pursuit of personal ikigai so much as a society.
Nick: Do you think for some Japanese, because they might have a very hard lifestyle, they work long hours, or they have loneliness, that their ikigai source is a coping mechanism that helps them get through life, rather than it makes their life worth living?
Sometimes I have that impression. So that’s sort of slightly different to what we generally perceive ikigai to be — a coping mechanism, rather than something that makes your life worth living.
Sachiaki: Yeah, the coping mechanism is quite big, I think. But it has both a positive and negative side. If it is practised in a personal level, like you choose to feel this way, it becomes very positive. But when this concept is kind of forced upon from a body of organisation to the members of that organisation, then it more like controlling.
Gordon: Absolutely, that makes perfect sense. Just one tiny bit that I want to add to is that the most individualistic people I’ve ever met are Japanese. That’s because in a society with such a high degree of social structure, you know, somebody says, ‘Jibun yaritai koto o yaritai’ ‘I wanna do what I wanna do.’
Where I come from, that’s common sense, nobody says that. In Japan, you do have to say it, and those who insist on it, often do really make their own fairly unique paths. So it’s quite remarkable how people can find happiness by not being within those social structures.
Shinichi: I don’t know. If that person who says like ‘I wanna do that’, one out of hundred people, those people stands out, because all the other people are like following what the others are doing.
Gordon: It is true. In Japan, Shinichi, you can do it. One very good friend of mine who is an utter utter utter individualist, living his own life the way he wants to live, told me, ‘Japan’s a wonderful place, and I can do whatever I want to do, and I never starved to death.’
Shinichi: Yeah, that’s true.