Ikigai

I am not a linguist. I only speak one language. I have studied Latin, French, Hebrew and Greek, but fluency in another language eludes me. At my current age, I suspect that I lack some of the mental fluidity that is required to master another language. All the same, I am fascinated by languages. Culture and language are so intertwined that just understanding a single word or concept can open a world of understanding. So even though I cannot master languages, I really enjoy exploring concepts. A few years ago, whenever I would encounter a Lakota speaker, I would ask about the term Takini. We think of it as place name because there is a school with that name and it once was the name Lakota people gave to the small cluster of homes that is named Bridger on state maps. Realizing that the concept defies direct translation into English helps to own a new perspective on Lakota language, history and culture.

Having hosted exchange students from Japan and having a daughter who lives in Japan has given rise to an interest in Japanese language and culture. We have been fortunate to make two trips to Japan and I know that just traveling there will not force me to learn the language. In Japan you can almost always find someone who is fluent in English. Signs usually feature English as well as Japanese and other languages. But from time to time I have picked up books written in English that present Japanese words and concepts as keys to understanding Japanese culture and as bits of philosophy.

One of the words that has shown up in several books about Japan is ikigai. Formed by combining “ik”, which means “life”, and “gai”, which means “worthwhile”, the concept describes what gives meaning to life. Similar to the french concept “raison d’être”, it seems to not be completely the same concept. For the French, at least, raison d’être is likely to be attached to a deep passion, a love of a person or a hobby or an art. For the Japanese, ikigai often evokes a deep loyalty to an employer. It isn’t a love of work, per se, though love of work is part of the concept. Often it is used as a deep loyalty to a company or even the products a company produces. But even a love and loyalty to a company isn’t quit what the Japanese mean by ikigai. The concept can be applied to family as well. If you live for your family, it is ikigai.

The term is ancient, at least as old as the 14th Century when Japan’s society was even more hierarchical than it is now. Each person in ancient Japan had an assigned role in society. There was strong cultural pressure to accept one’s role. Learning to live and work without complaint was critical to the organization of society. One didn’t expect upward mobility. One fulfilled the expectations of one’s assigned role. The modern concept if ikigai, however, probably comes in part from a 1912 novel, Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki. Kokoro means “he heart of things” and the book is the story of the coming of age of a student with the support of a mentor who is old and wise. As Japan emerged from isolation into the world stage the entire culture was learning a new way of living. As Japan emerged from World War II, the novel once again became popular as the culture shifted from one of rigid social roles to a more individual focus on survival that soon became a pursuit of affluence. In this context ikigai became a description of the energy that is required to pursue lofty goals. You get up in the morning and go to work because work is the way that you achieve the rewards you seek. Japanese society became noted for people who were willing to work long days with little vacation of breaks. At the same time, life expectancy in Japan increased dramatically. People began to associate work with long life. The concept of retirement didn’t really catch on in Japan. You’ll find octogenarians selling tickets and cleaning in a train station, driving a cab and clerking in a store.

One expression of ikigai that you see when traveling in Japan comes unexpectedly in the presentation of food. Whether it is a simple bento box purchased in a train station or an elaborate meal served in a restaurant, it is obvious that a lot of hard work is put into presentation of food. Food must not only be well-prepared and taste good, it must be beautifully presented. Elaborately carved vegetables, carefully arranged plates, and decorative touches are a part of Japanese food. Those who prepare the food invest time and patience and skill and craftsmanship in its preparation.

Of course it isn’t just food. If you pick up a lacquered rice bowl in a shop, you will see the high degree of hand work that is invested in a simple item that in our country would be mass produced by machines. The basic bowl will have been mass produced, but someone picked up each bowl and painted it with care and precision. It is more than just work to accomplish a task. It is learning to love the work for the sake of the work.

I am not sure that I fully understand the concept of ikigai, but it has been a life-giving concept for me in the small amount that I do understand it. I have loved the work I do for all of my adult life. I get up in the morning with eagerness for the tasks of the day. I get tired and I feel overwhelmed and there are times when I long for a day off, but I have always been blessed with work that is deeply meaningful to me. My work gives meaning to my life. I shudder when I come into contact with pastors who haven’t invested the time in becoming educated and preparing for the profession. I can be very critical of colleagues who don’t seem to be willing to put in the hours and serve the people of the church. Perhaps that is a bit of the concept of ikigai.

Even though I cannot seem to master other languages, I have a deep appreciation for the depth of culture contained in a single word. For me, at this stage of my life, just thinking about individual words is worth my time and energy.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!