Ikigai in Japanese culture versus Western culture

This tile compares ikigai with similar concepts in the Western culture, explores the interpretation of ikigai outside of Japan, and discovers common myths and misconceptions about ikigai, such as the misinterpretation of the Venn diagram to find your ikigai.

A universal human experience

The relentless search for a reason to live, a life worth living, and the happiness and benefit of being alive is a universal human experience[37]. The Japanese express the pursuit of a more fulfilling life through ikigai, but the desire to find purpose in one’s existence pervades all cultures. 

Although ikigai is considered by Japanese authors to be an ambiguous, intuitive, irrational, and nuanced concept—as well as less philosophical than related terms in Western languages[38]—Japanese authors often compare ikigai to Viktor Frankl’s The Will to Meaning and Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

Maslow places self-actualization and significance at the top of the hierarchy, after the fulfillment of basic human needs such as security, love, and respect. Similarly, ikigai is considered the highest level of desire in Japanese culture and contributes to cultivating an individual’s inner potential[39] or self-actualization. The desire to live with purpose, to experience ikigai, echoes Frankl’s premise that man is driven by the search for and fulfillment of meaning in life.

Origins of the ikigai Venn diagram

Outside of Japan, the concept of ikigai is invariably associated with the Venn diagram consisting of four overlapping circles: 1) what you love, 2) what you are good at, 3) what you can be paid for, and 4) what the world needs. At the intersection of the four circles is the word ikigai. This visual representation aims to provide a roadmap to finding your ikigai and suggests that you can achieve real ikigai only by fulfilling all four elements. 

However, the ikigai Venn diagram is nothing more than Spanish author Andres Zuzunaga’s purpose Venn diagram, created in 2011. A few years later, blogger Marc Winn wrote an article about ikigai, where he merged the purpose Venn diagram with Buettner’s depiction of ikigai in his famous TED Talk on ‘Blue Zones,’ or communities in which elders live with vim and vigor to record-setting ages. “In 2014, I wrote a blog post on the subject of ikigai. […] I changed one word on a diagram and shared a ‘new’ meme with the world,”[40] Winn writes on his blog.

Despite its persistent popularity, this interpretation of ikigai fails to capture the Japanese understanding of the concept and links ikigai inexorably with profession and money. Ikigai is much more complex than something to be defined only in a diagram.

 A cross-cultural concept

The desire to find purpose and happiness in life is a shared human experience. On an individual level, we all look for a sense of significance, the feeling that we’re valued, and the perception that our life matters[41]. Yet our perspective on what makes life worth living is largely influenced by our cultural and societal environment.

However specific to Japanese culture, and despite its lack of a precise equivalent in other languages, the concept of ikigai attempts to respond to the same basic human needs. In his comparative studies of how the Japanese and Americans pursue happiness and purpose in life, Mathews demonstrated that ikigai can be understood and applied not only within Japanese culture but also to American lives[42]. According to Mathews’ theory, ikigai can be viewed as a cross-cultural concept relevant to Western culture and applicable in a multitude of contexts[43].

Debunking the ikigai Venn diagram

Despite its persistent popularity outside of Japan, the interpretation of ikigai as a Venn diagram reduces the Japanese concept to a single monumental life goal to achieve. However, ikigai encompasses much more and is, in many ways, the opposite of that notion.

For Japanese people, ikigai is more about dedication and the meticulous pursuit of an activity than what you are good at. Some Japanese conceptions describe ikigai as a commitment to a social construct, which typically refers to a close group or role, such as work or family[44], rather than serving the world. Perhaps most notably, ikigai is not about financial freedom; it is about achieving a state of mind where one can live freely and purposefully.

According to Mogi, the only component of the Venn diagram aligning with the Japanese concept is ‘what you love.’[45] While this visualization may not reflect the true meaning of ikigai, it reflects Western culture’s idea of a life worth living and can be a helpful guide in life.

The changing nature of ikigai

When we think of finding our purpose or meaning in life, we tend to imagine a single, all-encompassing source that fuels our entire existence. However, modern psychological literature[46] indicates that a person may have multiple purposes throughout life. Similarly, a person’s ikigai can change depending on their age and their stage in life.

Although some Japanese people in their 20s tend to focus more on pursuing pleasures in the present moment, most focus on dreams of what their future self might become. Their ikigai may be conventional by societal and cultural standards, such as marriage for women or success in work for men. However, others dare to break conventions and seek goals that are more familiar to Western cultures, such as quitting a regular job to pursue an activity they are passionate about[47].

Ikigai shifts as a reflection of one’s evolving life circumstances—career change, marriage, children, retirement, or the loss of a loved one. Each stage in life provides an opportunity to find a new ikigai.

Ikigai and gender

The Japanese conceptions of ikigai seem to reflect society’s traditional gender-based division of roles, where men devote themselves to work and women take care of household duties and nurture their families. A 2006 study[48] of factors associated with ikigai found that men closely associated “income, working days, and work for benefit” with ikigai. In contrast, for women, ikigai was closely connected with “family relations such as having a spouse.”

The findings echo earlier work from Mathews. His research revealed that most Japanese sarariimen found a sense of self-worth in their work or company and women in their family or motherhood. However, Mathews also identified exceptions among younger women and men who rejected domestic life or work as their ikigai[49]. Moreover, Mathews’ comparison between American and Japanese individuals’ pursuit of meaning in life reveals that the stereotypical gender division of ikigai is not exclusive to Japan, finding many instances where Americans, too, identified with these roles[50].

Ikigai versus purpose in life

Because of the similarities between ikigai and the English terms ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning of life,’ people outside Japan tend to expect that ikigai implies an overarching goal that one pursues throughout one’s life and may even be able to achieve in one lifetime, such as becoming a politician or a renowned chef.

However, one’s ikigai can include much more modest and humble goals[51]. In Japan, ikigai does not necessarily imply ambitious projects or accomplishments[52]; instead, it focuses on something small and manageable every day. Furthermore, it may have nothing to do with economic status.

As Mogi explains, even the highest achievement takes small steps to build, and concentrating on the little things is key to experiencing true ikigai. He further emphasizes that ikigai is available to everyone, calling it a ‘democratic concept’[53] in which reaching a significant objective in life can be a byproduct of ikigai, not ikigai itself.

Sources

[37] https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/28/3/323/31016

[38] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317206800_On_the_Concept_of_Well-Being_in_Japan_Feeling_Shiawase_as_Hedonic_Well-Being_and_Feeling_Ikigai_as_Eudaimonic_Well-Being

[39] https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/28/3/323/31016

[40] https://theviewinside.me/meme-seeding/

[41] https://ikigaitribe.com/ikigai/podcast02/

[42] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317206800_On_the_Concept_of_Well-Being_in_Japan_Feeling_Shiawase_as_Hedonic_Well-Being_and_Feeling_Ikigai_as_Eudaimonic_Well-Being

[43] https://academic.oup.com/ssjj/article-abstract/24/2/445/6179834

[44] Mathews, G. (1996). The Stuff of Dreams, Fading: Ikigai and “The Japanese Self.” Ethos, 24(4), 718–747. http://www.jstor.org/stable/640520

[45] https://youtu.be/libEQRC0nRU

[46] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292190023_The_three_meanings_of_meaning_in_life_Distinguishing_coherence_purpose_and_significance

[47] https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:feac1aa8-f74f-44d2-a089-8fcf5eee6d6d

[48] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1450260/

[49]

Mathews, G. (1996). The Stuff of Dreams, Fading: Ikigai and “The Japanese Self.” Ethos, 24(4), 718–747. http://www.jstor.org/stable/640520

[50] https://books.google.ro/books?id=HbcwDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA103&lpg=PA103&dq=gordon+mathews+ikigai+and+gender&source=bl&ots=8Z_jEyX-R0&sig=ACfU3U23UefXLacsLQBvPrbqCXU71KYuig&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj6h4zgsq_3AhVkSvEDHbPnAEUQ6AF6BAgTEAM#v=onepage&q=gordon%20mathews%20ikigai%20and%20gender&f=false

[51] https://theconversation.com/the-japanese-concept-of-ikigai-why-purpose-might-be-a-better-goal-than-happiness-88709

[52] https://www.sloww.co/ikigai/

[53] https://ikigaitribe.com/ikigai/ikigai-explained-by-a-neuroscientist/

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