Is Ikigai the Secret to Longevity?

Is ikigai a word from Okinawa? Is it the secret to longevity?

In his book IKIGAI-KAN, Nick Kemp addresses these misconceptions and how all the misunderstandings on the concept of ikigai started.

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Ikigai is NOT the Japanese secret to longevity.

The first chapter of my book IKIGAI-KAN: Feel a Life Worth Living, I shared the Okinawa myth. I’ll give you a brief introduction and a quote from the book. In 2019, Dan Buettner, a national geographic fellow and the author of the Blue Zones, gave a Ted Talk titled ‘How to live to be 100+’

This Ted Talk was on the five blue zones, where each zone has a high concentration of centenarians, and one of these blue zones was Okinawa, Japan. His research for Okinawa dates back to 2000, and the talk was in 2009, and we’re now in 2022 –  and things have changed.

In his talk, Buettner linked Okinawan lifespan to diet, lifestyle, and then a little known concept, ikigai. He said:

In the Okinawan language, there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that  imbues your entire life. That word is ikigai. Roughly translated, ikigai means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.’”

So I’m going to quote:

Ever since the Westerners have had the tendency to inappropriately connect ikigai to longevity in general, and the longevity of Okinawans in particular. You can find these references in many books, other Ted Talks, and thousands of blog posts, which have perpetuated this myth. 

While it may be true that uchinaguchi, the indegeneous language of Okinawa has no word for retirement, ikigai, as you now know, is not a word from Okinawa. But rather a common word in the Japanese language, further, in all of my conversations with Japanese researchers and my many Japanese friends, not one ever mentioned ikigai as being something to do with longevity.”

So this myth, this idea of longevity, came from this Ted Talk, and along with that is also this idea that Japanese don’t retire. That’s simply not true, Japanese do retire, and there are many words for retirement in Japanese. 

It may be true that there is a word for the indigenous language of Okinawa for retirement, and that language is uchinaguchi. But of course that’s not Japanese. So this Ted Talk, while inspiring and very helpful, did create the perception or the misunderstanding that ikigai is the Japanese secret to longevity.