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.

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.

~gai

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. 

What is ikigai?

Kaiawase Shells

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, it is actually used casually in conversation. 

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.

Ikigai Definitions

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

There are two ways of using the word ikigai. When someone says “this child is my ikigai,” it refers to the source or target of ikigai, and when one feels ikigai as a state of mind. The latter of these is close to what Frankl calls “sense of meaning”. Here I will tentatively call it “ikigai-kan” to distinguish it from the former “ikigai”. - Mieko Kamiya
As "ikigai" can be a guideline for the individual's way of life, it is a topic for interdisciplinary research in psychology, pedagogy(education), and philosophy.- Prof. Akihiro Hasegawa
‘The key to ikigai is it’s what makes life really seem worth it. It’s when you feel ‘Damn! It’s good to be alive!’ And that’s an extraordinary feeling to have. It’s wonderful that as human beings, we have an ikigai enabling us to experience that.’. - Gordon Mathews
'Ikigai starts from very small things, like just having a cup of coffee.'-Ken Mogi
‘Feeling ikigai entails actions of devoting oneself to pursuits one enjoys and is associated with feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. Furthermore, it includes awareness of values such as the purpose of life and the meaning of existence; it is future oriented, as in goal seeking.’ - Michiko Kumano
Ikigai is the action we take in pursuit of happiness. - Yukari Mitsuhashi.

Other Japanese Verbs That Compound With Gai To Become Nouns

  • Do - yaru - yarigai - the value of doing.
  • Work - hataraku - hatarakigai - the value of working.
  • Play - asobu - asobigai - the value of playing.
  • Die - shinu - shinigai - the value in dying (for a cause).
  • Live - ikiru - ikigai - the value of living.
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