What is the Secret to Living a Long, Happy & Creatively Fulfilling Life?: Discover the Japanese Concept of Ikigai

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Inemuri,” the Japan­ese Art of Tak­ing Pow­er Naps at Work, on the Sub­way, and Oth­er Pub­lic Places

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

How a Kore­an Pot­ter Found a “Beau­ti­ful Life” Through His Art: A Short, Life-Affirm­ing Doc­u­men­tary

Change Your Life! Learn the Japan­ese Art of Declut­ter­ing, Orga­niz­ing & Tidy­ing Things Up

How the Japan­ese Prac­tice of “For­est Bathing”—Or Just Hang­ing Out in the Woods—Can Low­er Stress Lev­els and Fight Dis­ease

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.

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