Ikiru, one of several Akira Kurosawa films routinely described as a masterpiece, tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged widower who, three decades into a dead-end bureaucratic career, finds out he has just one year to live. This sends him on an urgent eleventh-hour quest to find something to live for. The picture’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich-inspired script originally bore the title The Life of Kanji Watanabe, but Kurosawa chose to rename it for the Japanese verb meaning “to live” (生きる). And anyone who wants to truly ikiru needs an ikigai.
A combination of characters from the Japanese words for “living” and “effect” or “worth,” ikigai (生き甲斐) as a concept has recently come to attention in the West, not least because of last year’s bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. (Note: You can get the bestseller as a free audio book if you sign up for Audible’s 30-day free trial program. Get details on that here.)
Writer on health and longevity Dan Buettner has also done his bit to promote ikigai, interpreting it as “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” in a TED Talk based on his research in the places with the longest-lived populations in the world, a group that includes the Japanese island of Okinawa.
“For this 102-year-old karate master, his ikigai was carrying forth this martial art,” Buettner says of one Okinawan in particular. “For this hundred-year-old fisherman it was continuing to catch fish for his family three times a week.” He notes that “the two most dangerous years in your life are the year you’re born, because of infant mortality, and the year you retire. These people know their sense of purpose, and they activate it in their life, that’s worth about seven years of extra life expectancy.” This phenomenon has also come under scientific study: one paper published in Psychosomatic Medicine found, tracking a group of more than 40,000 Japanese adults over seven years, “subjects who did not find a sense of ikigai were associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.”
We in the West have long looked to the traditional concepts of other cultures for guidance, but the Japanese themselves, a population among whom dissatisfaction with life is not unknown, have long scrutinized ikigai to draw out useful lessons. “There are many books in Japan devoted to ikigai, but one in particular is considered definitive: Ikigai-ni-tsuite (About Ikigai), published in 1966,” writes the BBC’s Yukari Mitsuhashi. “The book’s author, psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word, ikigai is similar to ‘happiness’ but has a subtle difference in its nuance. Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.”
Akira Kurosawa, who painted his movies when he couldn’t find the money to shoot them, stands as a towering example of someone who found his ikigai in filmmaking, which he kept on doing it into his eighties. In Ikiru, he guides the bewildered Watanabe into an encounter with ikigai in the form of a young lady who quits her job in his office to make toy rabbits: more arduous work than the civil service, she admits, but it gives her a sense of satisfaction that feels like playing with every child in Japan. This inspires Watanabe to return to find his own ikigai, if only at the very end of his life, in campaigning for the construction of a neighborhood playground. But one year with ikigai, if you believe in the power of the concept, beats a century without it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.