Characteristics of Ikigai

This tile explores the common elements of ikigai, Mogi’s five pillars of ikigai, the seven needs to achieve ikigai as defined by Kamiya, and the difference between ikigai sources and perceptions.

A general guide

The five pillars of ikigai

In writing *The Little Book of Ikigai*, Mogi, the neuroscientist, delved deeply into the Japanese culture to investigate the essential factors contributing to this natural manifestation of purposeful living among Japanese people.

Although not expressly looking to deliver the message as a set of rules or a formula for finding ikigai, the author still wanted to give readers a key takeaway and introduced the five pillars of ikigai: *starting small, releasing yourself, harmony and sustainability, the joy of small things*, and *being in the here and now*.

Interestingly, Mogi didn’t develop the pillars until the late stages of writing his manuscript. As the author states, the idea crystallized from the organic structure of the book. The author stresses that the pillars are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive and do not have a particular order or hierarchy. Instead, they are essential guides to understanding and finding our own ikigai.

The tea ceremony

The tea ceremony is a Japanese art of refinement. It is also a perfect illustration of the five pillars of ikigai.

The tea ceremony begins with preparation of the room. The tea master pays attention to every ornament, from the flowers decorated on the wall to the hanging scroll in the tokonoma (Pillar 1: starting small). Many bowls used in a tea ceremony are more than 400 years old. The nicest bowls are thrown by hand and are prized for their imperfections and irregularities. The tea master carefully chooses bowls that resonate with each other (Pillar 3: harmony and sustainability). The tradition requires extensive years of practice, yet the tea master is imbued with humility (Pillar 2: releasing yourself).

The main purpose of the tea ceremony is to enjoy every step of the process, from the beautiful wares to the tea preparation and the sensory pleasure of drinking tea (Pillar 4: the joy of little things). The tea ceremony insulates harmony, purity, and tranquility, and invites a state of mindfulness and slow pace that everyone must embrace (Pillar 5: being in the here and now).

What is a source of ikigai?

In her pioneering book, *Ikigai-ni-Tsuite* (What Makes Our Life Worth Living), Kamiya made an important distinction that has significantly influenced subsequent research on ikigai. Kamiya was the first to define ikigai as both the object that most makes one feel their life is worth living (ikigai source) and the feeling or state of mind that comes as a result.

According to Kamiya, ikigai as a source (or *ikigai taishō*) presents several key traits: 1) It is unique for every person and should be compatible with their identity, 2) It is a means of expressing one’s true self, 3) It contributes to the sense of living with purpose and worth, 4) It has intrinsic value (such as the meticulous pursuit of an activity) rather than instrumental value, 5) It builds a personal set of values by which one lives, and 6) It shapes an internal mental world that allows one to live freely.

What are the perceptions of ikigai?

The elusive nature of ikigai makes it difficult even for Japanese people to correctly identify it. Some may say their work is their ikigai when, in fact, they may confuse the feeling that *“one’s life is worth living”* with *hatarakigai*, the sense that *“one’s work is worth doing.”* Others still may mistake feelings of happiness for ikigai.

The perception of ikigai (*ikigai-kan* in Japanese) defines the feeling arising when one lives a life worth living; it is essential in identifying one’s ikigai and distinguishing it from other types of well-being, such as happiness.

Compared to happiness, ikigai-kan arises from actions devoted to something worthwhile, engaging in effortful activities, or enduring difficulties. According to Kamiya, feeling true ikigai involves future-oriented intentions, relates more strongly to one’s sense of self, and is associated with one’s value and achievement to a greater extent than happiness.

The seven needs of ikigai

In her extensive study of ikigai, Kamiya asserted that the sense of life worth living (ikigai perception) appears after the individual has satisfied seven essential personal needs. According to Kamiya, to feel ikigai, one needs 1) to experience life satisfaction which arises when an individual’s life is going in the desired direction, 2) to experience change to grow, 3) to believe their life will unfold toward a brighter future (mirai-sei), 4) to build and nurture meaningful relationships that resonate in one’s surroundings (hankyo), 5) to feel freedom and autonomy, 6) to develop one’s core identity (self-actualization), and 7) to have meaning and value in life.

However, Professor Noriyuki Nakanishi explains that these needs are not exhaustive, and each person would require the satisfaction of a certain number of needs in varying degrees to experience ikigai. Furthermore, depending on their ikigai source, some needs may converge with others. Aligning with the subjective nature of ikigai, the needs leading to one’s ikigai will also differ from person to person.

The constituent elements of ikigai

Influenced by Kamiya’s revolutionary work on ikigai and specifically, her separation of ikigai as both the object or source of one’s purpose in life and the feeling of a life worth living, Hasegawa, the clinical psychologist and professor, developed a framework to help visualize the fundamental components of ikigai.

Hasegawa separated the concept of ikigai into three basic elements. On the left is the object or source of ikigai, which can come from one’s past experiences, present (current life situation or activities), and future (reflecting the future-oriented characteristic of ikigai). On the right is ikigai as the feeling of purposeful living, described as self-realization, motivation to live, or sense of fulfillment in everyday life. Hasegawa’s framework places the self, the individual in pursuit of ikigai, at the center of the two elements. The inclusion of self-agency reflects the idea of control over one’s life and the notion that ikigai, while emerging from a lived experience, cannot happen without action.


Ikigai as ittaikan

The rising interest in ikigai in Japan and the term’s subtleties have fostered dissensus among Japanese people and authors alike over what ikigai means or should mean. In his study of the Japanese self and ikigai, anthropologist Mathews identifies two primary conceptions of ikigai in written works as well as society.

According to Mathews, some Japanese commentators on ikigai explicitly define it as *jiko jitsugen* or self-realization. In contrast, others implicitly describe it as *ittaikan*, meaning a sense of oneness or commitment to a group or role.

The concept of ikigai as ittaikan entails one’s devotion to an existing social construct, whether a group (family, company) or a role (parent, employee). Advocates of ikigai as ittaikan (both Japanese people and authors) consider that a person can achieve true ikigai only through complete dedication to their work and company or family and children, representing the true source of fulfillment in life.

Ikigai as jiko jitsugen

As Japan’s economic growth and affluence established a comfortable standard of living for most of the population, many people were left wondering whether dedicating themselves to their work or family was enough to live a life worth living.

Japanese conceptions of ikigai, as described in existing literature, seem divided between ikigai as the commitment to a group or role (*ittaikan*) and the pursuit of personal fulfillment, one’s self-realization (*jiko jitsugen*).

Those who see ikigai as self-realization argue that simply taking on the social role of an employee or mother is a questionable source of true ikigai. For example, Kamiya, cited by Mathews, writes, *“If you act as a mother only from custom or duty … that cannot be your real ikigai.”*

Ikigai as jiko jitsugen focuses on the individual rather than the group and their pursuit of personal dreams and creative efforts that may come to fruition in the future.

Ikigai is both social and individual

In *The Stuff of Dreams*, Mathews introduces the theory that ikigai, whether perceived as *ittaikan* (commitment to group or role) or *jiko jitsugen* (self-realization), is both individual and social.

Ikigai as ittaikan points to one’s commitment to an existing social construct. Conversely, ikigai as jiko jitsugen seems more focused on the person than the group and implies one’s commitment to a future social world. As Mathews demonstrates, both conceptions of ikigai involve a projection into a ‘world beyond the self’ and a commitment to something in one’s existing or imagined social setting.

Ikigai, in the broader sense of ‘what makes life worth living,’ inevitably pertains to something within the individual’s social environment. At the same time, ikigai is an individual matter. Regardless of what one lives for—such as company, family, creative endeavors, or the desire to carry out a mission in life—it is a personal choice that can be made only by oneself.

Ikigai is socially negotiated

The realm of ikigai possibilities is large. People can formulate their ikigai from various cultural conceptions available in their societies, typically, interpretations of value in life found in television shows, newspapers, or movies. However, what ends up being someone’s ikigai is often shaped by the cultural and social environment in which they live. While the choice of ikigai remains resolutely personal, it is also negotiated with one’s ‘circle of immediate others,’ who sometimes act in a way so as to divert attention towards what they feel should be one’s ikigai.

Anthropologist Mathews describes statements such as, *“I’m not sure you have enough drive to become an executive for this company,” “Do you really love me?,”* or *“What do you mean, you only want to write music? You can’t eat that way!”* as phrasings of ikigai negotiation.

Mathews further explains how large-scale factors such as tax rules or wage imbalances may influence *“one’s pursuit of ikigai down some paths and not others.”*

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