Ikigai Meaning

The Japanese word ikigai is often translated to 'your life purpose'. Ikigai can encompass your life purpose, but is not limited to this, and conversely can be something as small as a daily ritual you enjoy.

The word ikigai is formed from two Kanji characters: ‘iki’「生き」meaning life, and ‘gai’ 「甲斐」 meaning worth. The word ‘gai’ is the pronunciation of the compound kanji variation of  ‘kai’ which translates to ‘shell’ in Japanese.

Today,  ikigai is written as 生きがい with hiragana がい  replacing 甲斐.

During the Heian period (794-1185), shells were extremely valuable as they were decorated and used for a game called Kaiawase - shell matching. The game of Kaiawase was played by Japanese nobles, so the association of value is still inherently seen in the word shell.

What is ikigai?
ikigai kanji

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's a word that represents a multifaceted concept that Japanese 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. Japanese grow up with the word and begin to understand its meaning early in life.

Author and neuroscientist, Ken Mogi, describes ikigai as a spectrum, and that the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself. 

To the Japanese, Ikigai is a comprehensive concept describing subjective well-being. It encompasses life-satisfaction, self-esteem, morale, happiness as well as the evaluation of meaning in one's life.

How Can I Find My Ikigai?

A good place to start is to ask yourself what are the non-material things in your life that make it worth living. If we think deeply about this question we will most likely find ikigai in: 

  • our values and beliefs
  • our relationships and roles
  • our hobbies and interests
  • and in certain aspects of our work.

Take the ikigai questionnaire  to find out if you are living with ikigai.

What Ikigai Means to Japanese

The short definitions below might give you some insight to what ikigai means to the Japanese.

In a nutshell, Ikigai is a spectrum. And the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself. - Ken Mogi.
Ikigai is the action we take in pursuit of happiness. - Yukari Mitsuhashi.