Ikigai: Your guide to living a longer, happier life

By Alex McDivitt

Ikigai: Your guide to living a longer, happier life
Want to know the secret to Japanese people's longevity and good health?

Find out the secret to the Japanese people’s record-breaking long life and good health. The ethos of ikigai is taking the West by storm. This ethos, the “reasons for being”, has been practised in Japan for hundreds of years. It’s such a way of life that it’s taken for granted, says Ken Mogi, neuroscientist and author of The Little Book of Ikigai. To find out more about this way of life and how to integrate it into your life, here’s an excerpt from Mogi’s book.

Chapter 1: What is ikigai?

When President Barack Obama made his official visit to Japan in the spring of 2014, it befell Japanese government officials to choose a venue for the welcome dinner to be hosted by the Prime Minister of Japan. The occasion was to be a private affair, preceding the state visit which was due to start officially the following day, and which included a ceremonial dinner at the Imperial Palace, with the Emperor and Empress presiding.

Imagine how much consideration went into the choice of restaurant. When it was finally announced that the venue was to be Sukiyabashi Jiro, arguably one of the world’s most famous and respected sushi restaurants, the decision was met with universal approval. Indeed, you could tell how much President Obama himself enjoyed the experience of dining there from the smile on his face when he stepped out. Reportedly, Obama said it was the best sushi he had ever eaten. That was a huge compliment coming from someone who grew up in Hawaii, with exposure to a strong Japanese influence including sushi, and who, presumably, had had many previous experiences of haute cuisine.

Sukiyabashi Jiro is proudly headed by Jiro Ono, who is, as I write this, the world’s oldest living three-Michelin-star chef, at the age of ninety-one. Sukiyabashi Jiro was already famous among Japanese connoisseurs before the first Michelin Guide for Tokyo in 2012, but that publication definitely put the restaurant on the world gourmet map.

Although the sushi he produces is shrouded in an almost mystic aura, Ono’s cooking is based on practical and resourceful techniques. For example, he developed a special procedure for providing salmon roe (ikura) in a fresh condition throughout the year. This challenged the long-held professional wisdom followed in the best sushi restaurants – that ikura should only be served during its prime season, the autumn, when the salmon brave the rivers to lay their eggs. He also invented a special procedure in which a certain type of fish meat is smoked with burned rice straw to produce a special flavour. The timing of the placing of the sushi plates in front of eagerly waiting guests must be precisely calculated, as must the temperature of the fish meat, in order to optimize the sushi’s taste.(It is assumed that the customer will put the food in his mouth without too much delay.) In fact, dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro is like experiencing an exquisite ballet, choreographed from behind the counter by a dignified and respected master with an austere demeanour (although his face will, by the way, crack into a smile from time to time, if you are lucky).

You can take it that Ono’s incredible success is due to exceptional talent, sheer determination and bloody-minded perseverance over years of hard work, as well as a relentless pursuit of culinary techniques and presentation of the highest quality. Needless to say, Ono has achieved all of this. However, more than that and perhaps above all else, Ono has ikigai. It is no exaggeration to say that he owes his incredibly fabulous success in the professional and private realms of his life to the refinement of this most Japanese ethos. Ikigai is a Japanese word for describing the pleasures and meanings of life. The word literally consists of ‘iki’ (to live) and ‘gai’ (reason).

In the Japanese language, ikigai is used in various contexts, and can apply to small everyday things as well as to big goals and achievements. It is such a common word that people use it in daily life quite casually, without being aware of its having any special significance. Most importantly, ikigai is possible without your necessarily being successful in your professional life. In this sense, it is a very democratic concept, steeped in a celebration of the diversity of life. It is true that having ikigai can result in success, but success is not a requisite condition for having ikigai. It is open to every one of us.

For an owner of a successful sushi restaurant such as Jiro Ono, being offered a compliment from the President of the United States is a source of ikigai. To be recognized as the world’s oldest Michelin three-star chef certainly counts as a rather nice piece of ikigai. However, ikigai is not limited to these domains of worldly recognition and acclaim. Ono might find ikigai simply in serving the best tuna to a smiling customer or in feeling the refreshing chill of the early morning air, as he gets up and prepares to go to the Tsukiji fish market. Ono might even find ikigai in the cup of coffee he sips before starting each day. Or in a ray of sunshine coming through the leaves of a tree as he walks to his restaurant in central Tokyo.

Ono once mentioned that he wishes to die while making sushi. It clearly gives him a deep sense of ikigai, despite the fact that it requires many small steps that are in themselves monotonous and time-consuming. In order to make the octopus meat soft and tasty, for example, Ono has to ‘massage’ the cephalopod mollusc for one hour. Preparing Kohada, a small shiny fish considered to be the king of sushi, also needs much attention, involving the removal of the fish’s scales and intestines, and a precisely balanced marinade using salt and vinegar. ‘Perhaps my last sushi making would be Kohada’, he said.

Ikigai resides in the realm of small things. The morning air, the cup of coffee, the ray of sunshine, the massaging of octopus meat and the American President’s praise are on an equal footing. Only those who can recognize the richness of this whole spectrum really appreciate and enjoy it. This is an important lesson of ikigai. In a world where our value as people and our own sense of self-worth is determined primarily by our success, many people are under unnecessary pressure. You might feel that any value system you have is only worthy and justified if it translates into concrete achievements – a promotion, for example, or a lucrative investment.

Well, relax! You can have ikigai, a value to live by, without necessarily having to prove yourself in that way. That is not to say that it will come easily. I sometimes have to remind myself of this truth, even though I was born and grew up in a country where ikigai is more or less an assumed knowledge. In a TED talk titled ‘How to live to be 100+’, American writer Dan Buettner discussed ikigai specifically as an ethos for good health and longevity. At the time of writing, Buettner’s talk has been viewed more than three million times. Buettner explains the traits of the life styles of five places in the world where people live longer. Each ‘blue zone’, as Buettner terms these areas, has its own culture and traditions that contribute to longevity. The zones are Okinawa in Japan; Sardinia in Italy; Nicoya in Costa Rica; Icaria in Greece; and among the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Of all these blue zones, the Okinawans enjoy the highest life expectancy.

Okinawa is a chain of islands in the southern-most part of the Japanese archipelago. It boasts a lot of centenarians. Buettner cites the words of its inhabitants as testimonies of what constitute ikigai: a 102-year-old Karate master told him that his ikigai was caring for his martial arts; a hundred-year-old fisherman said his could be found by continuing to catch fish for his family three times a week; a 102-year-woman said hers was in holding her tiny great-great-great-grand-daughter – she said it was like leaping into heaven. Woven together, these simple lifestyle choices give clues as to what constitutes the very essence of ikigai: a sense of community, a balanced diet and an awareness of spirituality.

Although perhaps more obvious in Okinawa, these principles are shared by people in Japan in general. After all, the longevity rate in Japan is extremely high everywhere in the country. According to a 2016 survey by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, compared to other countries and regions in the world, Japanese men’s longevity ranked fourth in the world, with an average life expectancy of 80.79 years, after Hong Kong, Iceland and Switzerland. Japanese women lived the second longest in the world, with an average life expectancy of 87.05 years, after Hong Kong and followed by Spain.

It is fascinating to see the extent to which ikigai comes naturally to many Japanese. A key study concerning the health benefits of ikigai published in 2008 (Sense of Life Worth Living (ikigai) and Mortality in Japan: Ohsaki Study, Sone et al. 2008) was conducted by researchers at the Tohoku University medical school based in Sendai city in northern Japan. This study involved a large number of subjects, enabling the researchers to derive statistically significant correlations between ikigai and various health benefits. In this study, the researchers analysed data from the Ōsaki National Health Insurance (NHI) cohort study, conducted over a period of seven years. A self-administered questionnaire was distributed to 54,996 beneficiaries of The Ōsaki Public Health Centre, a local government agency that provides health services to the residents of fourteen municipalities, aged between forty and seventy-nine years.

The survey consisted of a ninety-three-item questionnaire in which the subjects were asked about past medical and family histories, physical health status, drinking and smoking habits, job, marital status, education and other health-related factors, including ikigai. The crucial question relating to the latter was very direct: ‘Do you have ikigai in your life?’ The subjects were asked to choose one of three answers: ‘yes’, ‘uncertain’ or ‘no’.

Analysing data from more than 50,000 people, the Ōsaki study paper concluded that ‘as compared with those who found a sense of ikigai, those who did not were more likely to be unmarried, unemployed, have a lower educational level, have bad or poor self-rated health, have a high level of perceived mental stress, have severe or moderate bodily pain, have limitation of physical function and be less likely to walk’. Using just this study, it is of course not possible to tell whether having ikigai has led to improved marital, employment or educational status of the subjects, or, alternatively, whether the accumulation of the various small successes in life has led to an increased sense of ikigai. But it would be reasonably safe to say that having a sense of ikigai points to a frame of mind whereby the subjects feel that they can build a happy and active life. Ikigai is, in a sense, a barometer which reflects a person’s outlook on life in an integrated and representative way.

Furthermore, the mortality rate for people who answered ‘yes’ to the ikigai question was significantly lower than for those who answered ‘no’. The lower rate was the result of their being at a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, there was no significant change in the risk of cancer for people who answered ‘yes’ compared to those who answered ‘no’ to the ikigai question.

Why did the people with ikigai also have a reduced risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease? Maintenance of good health involves a large number of factors. It is difficult to say definitely what factors are ultimately responsible but the reduction of cardiovascular disease would suggest that those who have ikigai are more likely to exercise, since engagement in physical activities is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the Ōsaki study found that those who answered positively about ikigai did exercise more than those who gave a negative response. Ikigai gives your life a purpose, while giving you the grit to carry on. Although Sukiyabashi Jiro is now a world-famous culinary destination frequented by people such as Joel Robuchon, Jiro Ono’s origins are very humble.

His family struggled to make ends meet and out of financial necessity (these were the days before the introduction of regulations banning child labour in Japan), he started to work in a restaurant in the evenings when he was just an elementary school boy. During the day at school, tired from working long and arduous hours, he tended to nod off in class. When the teacher made him stand outside as punishment, he would often take advantage of the break from lessons to run back to the restaurant and finish chores, or to get a head start and reduce his workload. When Ono started his first sushi restaurant, the one that would eventually lead to Sukiyabashi Jiro, his aspiration was not to create the world’s finest dining establishment. At that time, it was simply cheaper to open a sushi restaurant, compared to other types of restaurant. Sushi restaurants, in their basic form, require only the most rudimentary equipment and furnishings. This is unsurprising, when you consider that sushi started as street food sold from stalls in the Edo period in the seventeenth century. For Ono at that time, opening a sushi restaurant was an effort to make ends meet, nothing more, nothing less.

Then started the long and arduous climb upwards. However, at every stage of his long career, Ono had ikigai to help support and motivate him as he listened to his own inner voice in his relentless pursuit of quality. This was not something that could be mass marketed, or easily understood by the general public. Ono had to pat himself on the shoulder along the way, especially in the early days when society at large had yet to take any notice of his strenuous efforts. He quietly got on with making small improvements to his business, designing a special container, for example, that fitted within the unusual counter space of his restaurant, so as to make everything neat and clean. He improved several tools used in the preparation of sushi, unaware that many of them would go on to be used in other restaurants and would eventually be recognized as being his original invention. All these small advancements have been labours of love, supported by Ono’s keen sense of the significance of starting small (the first pillar of ikigai).

This little book wishes to be a humble help for those who are interested in the ethos of ikigai. I hope that by telling Jiro Ono’s story I have given a flavour of what this concept entails and how valuable it can be. As we will see together, having ikigai can literally transform your life. You can live longer, have good health, become happier, more satisfied, and less stressed. In addition, and as a by-product of ikigai, you may even become more creative and successful. You can have all these benefits of ikigai, if you know how to appreciate this philosophy of life and learn to apply it in your life. Because ikigai is a concept heavily immersed in Japanese culture and its heritage, in order to clarify what it entails,

I will be delving deep into Japan’s traditions, while seeking relevance in its contemporary mores. In my view, ikigai is a kind of cognitive and behavioural hub, around which various life habits and value systems are organized. The fact the Japanese have been using ikigai in their everyday lives, not always necessarily knowing what the term means exactly, is a testimony of the importance of ikigai, especially if you take into account the lexical hypothesis, first put forward by the English psychologist Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century. According to Galton, important individual traits in a race’s personality become encoded in the language of the culture, and the more important the trait, the more likely it is to be captured in a single word. The fact that ikigai has been formed as a single denomination means that the concept points to a major psychological characteristic relevant to the life of the Japanese. Ikigai represents the Japanese wisdom of life, the sensitivities and manners of action that have been uniquely pertinent in Japanese society, and that have evolved over hundreds of years within the closely knit society of the island nation.

I will show you that of course you don’t have to be Japanese to have ikigai. When I think of ikigai as a private pleasure, I remember a special chair I encountered in the United Kingdom. For a couple of years in the middle of the 1990s, I was doing postdoctoral research in the Physiological Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. I was lodging in a house owned by an eminent professor. When he showed me the room I would be staying in, he pointed to a chair and explained that it had sentimental value for him: his father had made it especially for him when he was a small child.

There was nothing extraordinary about the chair. To be honest, it was rather clumsily made. The design was not refined, and there were ragged, irregular features here and there. If the chair was for sale in a market, it wouldn’t have fetched much money. Having said that, I could also see, by the glimmer in the professor’s eyes, that the chair had a very special meaning for him. And that was all that mattered. It had a unique place in the professor’s heart, just because his father had made it for him. That is what sentimental values are all about.

This is just a small example, but it is a powerful one. Ikigai is like the professor’s chair. It is about discovering, defining and appreciating those of life’s pleasures that have meaning for you. It is OK if no one else sees that particular value, although as we have seen with Ono and as you will find throughout this book, pursuing one’s private joys in life often leads to social rewards. You can find and cultivate your own ikigai, grow it secretly and slowly, until one day it bears a quite original fruit.

Throughout this book, while reviewing ways of living, culture, tradition, mindsets and philosophy of life in Japan, we will discover suggestions for good health and longevity that are entrenched within ikigai and you can ask yourself along the way:

  • What are your most sentimental values?
  • What are the small things that give you pleasure?

These are good places to start when it comes to finding your own ikigai as a way to a happier, more fulfilled life.

The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi ($24.99), published by Hachette Australia.



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