What does ikigai mean?
Simply put, there is no direct translation for ikigai. For the Japanese, ikigai is such a common notion that few would think about what it means. The word is used in daily conversation and often used in jest. When taking his first sip of beer after a hard day at the office, a salaryman might say "Ahh! This is my ikigai." referring to the beer.
Ikigai is not a Japanese version of 'self-help' to find the one true purpose of your life. It is often mistakenly translated to English to mean 'your life purpose'. Ikigai can encompass life purpose, but is not limited to this, and conversely can be something as small as a daily ritual you enjoy.
For Japanese, it's a word that represents a multifaceted concept that they understand more intimately as they grow older. The word or concept is not taught school or university, and Japanese don't use or need any visual frameworks to understand it.
The value of living
Ikigai is a combination of two words: iki, meaning ‘living’, and gai, meaning ‘the value of’ or ‘worth’. Iki comes from the verb ikiru, which means ‘to live’.
According to Professor Akihiro Hasegawa, it is crucial to understand what we mean by ‘life’. In Japanese, there are two words that can be translated in this way:
- jinsei, which means ‘lifetime’,
- and seikatsu, which means ‘everyday life.’
Hasegawa states that ‘The concept of ikigai aligns more to seikatsu, so the word relates to finding meaning in life in your day-to-day living.’
Ikigai is generally written as 生きがい, a compound of the verb, 生きる (ikiru), and がい (gai) . The kanji character 生, has multiple readings and meanings, but is generally associated with life or living things. The rest of the word is written with hiragana script, the basic syllabary of Japanese.
The ‘gai’ of ikigai can also be written with kanji (Chinese characters) as 生き甲斐, with 甲, representing armour, carapace or shell and 斐, representing ornately patterned.
The origin of ikigai
The origin of gai dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185), which produced some of Japan’s finest art and is often referred to as the Golden Age of Japanese cultural history. A game played by the Heian aristocracy during this period was kai-awasei, which involved finding a match (‘awase’) between shells (‘kai’) – which were hand-decorated and thus highly prized. As only the wealthy could afford kaiawase shells, great value was associated with them, and the word kai came to mean value or worth.
Ikigai is not a special word
While the etymology of the word is rich and fascinating, for Japanese, ikigai is not something grandiose or flamboyant like the shells it references.
Although it seems like a word with so much importance and meaning should be considered special, for Japanese ikigai is actually something they feel rather than talk about; if they do discuss it, they discuss it in the same nonchalant way as they might discuss their hobbies – and, for many Japanese, their ikigai is their hobby, which may make the concept seem not all that unique or special.
What you can learn from this is that you should let go of a desire for exact definitions and instead embrace the idea of having long discussions on these concepts to understand their ambiguity, and acknowledge that they are cultural, unique and personal, and therefore cumulatively multifaceted.
If you can do this, you open yourself up to a world of learning about the various nuanced interpretations of, and approaches to, ikigai – and about the Japanese language in general, which features many words that hold a deep and philosophical meaning yet are used in everyday conversation.
Understanding that ikigai is not a special word allows us to approach it like the Japanese do – without a sense of pressure. Japanese people don't view ikigai as a lofty goal, a destination, or something to achieve.
Approach ikigai casually
While I am hesitant to use words like ‘hack’ or ‘secret’, I do feel that the secret to feeling ikigai is to approach it casually. Rather than thinking that ikigai is an entrepreneurial goal to achieve or an idyllic island lifestyle that will enable us to live a long and happy life, appreciating this casual and more inclusive approach will provide us with more opportunities to feel ikigai in our life.