The world’s oldest living three-Michelin-star chef, 91-year-old Jiro Ono has it. The smiling cleaners on Japan’s famous Shinkansen bullet train have discovered it. The chief blender of Suntory, the Japanese brewing group, has also attained it – despite the fact that many of the blends he creates won’t be ready to drink during his lifetime.
It’s the reason, according to philosophers, that Japanese men’s longevity ranks fourth in the world, whilst Japanese women’s ranks second. TED speaker Dan Buettner believes it’s the secret to living to a hundred.
Now, neuroscientist Ken Mogi has written a book on the subject, The Little Book of Ikigai; the Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life. The word ikagai literally consists of “iki” (to live) and “gai” (reason). In short, it is a Japanese word for describing the pleasures and meanings of life.
“In the Japanese language, ikigai is used in various context,” says Ken. “It can apply to small everyday things, as well as to big goals and achievements. Most importantly, ikagai is possible without you necessarily being successful in your professional life … It is open to every one of us.”
According to one Japanese study, which analysed data from more than 50,000 people, as compared with those who found a sense of ikagai, those who did not were more likely to be unemployed, have bad or poor self-related health, having a higher level of perceived mental stress and can even be more likely to suffer from cardio-vascular disorder.
Want to uncover your illusive ikagai? Here are three ways to begin…
According to Ken, harnessing ikagai starts with attention to detail. In Japan, the word used is kodawari. “Of the pillars of ikagai, kodawari is about starting small, without necessarily justifying the effort for any grandiose schemes,” he says. “There are many artisanal farmers who devote all their time, efforts and ingenuity to creating the best products. They go to an incredible length, propelled by their strong sense of starting small.”
The Japanese concept ichigo ichie literally means “one time, one encounter”. “It’s the appreciation of the ephemeral character of any encounter with people, things or events in life,” says Ken. “Precisely because an encounter is ephemeral, it must be taken seriously.” This ethos has an impact on creativity, whether it’s doing your job or just making a pot of tea in the morning. “Every opportunity is special,” he says. “That’s why the Japanese treat the tiniest details of any ritual as if it were a question of life and death.”
Japan is home to some of the oldest businesses in the world. “It is the Japanese spirit to pursue something in a subdued but sustained manner, rather than in a flamboyant fashion seeking short-lived satisfaction,” says Ken. The Ikenobi family in Kyoto has been dedicated to the art of flower arranging since 1462. The Sen families, also in Kyoto, have been keeping the culture of the tea ceremony active for more than 400 years since the death of their founding father in 1591. Instead of focusing on innovation and breaking-news developments, seekers of ikagai focus on another priority – harmony. “In the long process of life, you sometimes stumble and fall,” he says. “Even at those times, you can have ikagai; even when you’re on a losing streak. In other words, ikagai is peace.”
The Little Book of Ikigai; the Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life by Ken Mogi is out now.