Discover your passion the Japanese way
Here’s some inspiration on finding your ikigai, the Japanese secret to a long and healthy life.
What do the world’s oldest competitive speed skater, the oldest active commercial pilot, and the oldest professional club DJ have in common? They’re all well into their eighties and nineties, and they’re all Japanese.
World Health Organisation statistics for 2016, the most recent year for which the data are available, show Japan at the top of the life expectancy charts, a position it has held for quite a number of years. What could the secret be? Is it the Japanese diet? Getting plenty of exercise? Drinking green tea every day?
Héctor García and Francesc Miralles think they know the answer. They’re the authors of the best-selling book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Healthy Life, which has become something of a worldwide phenomenon: since its original 2016 publication in Spanish, it has been printed in 43 languages and has sold over one million copies.
Roughly translated into English, the word “ikigai” means “a reason for living.” While not downplaying the role of a healthy diet and an active lifestyle in helping people live longer, García and Miralles argue that the Japanese are particularly adept at finding purpose in their lives, and that sense of purpose keeps them going long after people in many other countries would have retired to armchairs in front of their TVs.
Over lunch at a restaurant in Tokyo, his home for more than a decade, García expands on his and Miralles’ findings. Not content just to study the long lives enjoyed by the Japanese population as a whole, they travelled to Ogimi, a village on the southern island of Okinawa that has earned the nickname “Village of Longevity.”
Everybody had an ikigai, a reason to hop out of bed each morning and look forward to the day ahead.
They found a community in which even the elderly exercise every day, not jogging on treadmills or lifting weights but raising vegetables in their gardens and walking to friends’ homes. They found a community in which people “eat the rainbow,” consuming a wide variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables, but everything in small portions. They found a community in which virtually everybody has known everybody else since birth and where helping friends and neighbours is as important as taking care of oneself.
And as García and Miralles interviewed Ogimi elders, they discovered another common denominator: everybody had an ikigai, a reason to hop out of bed each morning and look forward to the day ahead. These ikigai varied from person to person: for one interviewee, it was weaving things out of wicker, while for another it was growing her own vegetables and cooking them herself, and yet another mentioned getting together with her friends to belt out tunes with a karaoke machine.
Lessons from the pros
The idea that having a purpose in life can extend your time on this planet isn’t hard to believe, but how exactly do you go about finding that purpose? That’s a tricky question—so tricky, in fact, that García and Miralles wrote a follow-up book which focused solely on practical techniques for finding your ikigai.
“For example, at the end of each day,” García suggests, “spend five minutes writing down the three best and the three worst things that happened to you that day.” Writing is clearly García’s ikigai; though his daytime job is in IT, before going to work every morning, he tries to fit in two hours of writing. “If I don’t write, I get grumpy,” he laughs.
“Keep trying new things,” he adds, “and decide after doing them whether they make you feel better or worse. And remember that everybody is different: you might find an activity you enjoy so much that when you do it, the hours feel like minutes, but when your friend tries it, he keeps looking at his watch to see whether it’s time to stop yet.”
Ikigai is where your passion, your mission, your profession, and your vocation come together.
Sometimes the search for your own ikigai can be a short one: by carefully examining the life that you’re living today, you might find that you already have one. A diagram in García and Miralles’ book shows ikigai occupying the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for doing—or to put it a bit differently, ikigai is where your passion, your mission, your profession, and your vocation come together.
But don’t just take Héctor Garcia’s and Francesc Miralles’ word for it; listen to the pros. For example, Mayako Muroi’s passion, mission, profession, and vocation all refer to the same thing: the piano. She started playing it at the age of six, going on to graduate with highest honours from Tokyo Music School, and playing with the Japan Symphony Orchestra. Then came further piano studies in Germany, the beginning of several decades in Europe before she returned to Japan in her sixties. Today she’s the nation’s oldest performing pianist, less than three years shy of her hundredth birthday.
In the meantime, Zenjiro Nakashio has been winning track and field events and setting all-Japan records for nearly 30 years now, but in stark contrast to Mayako Muroi, he was a retiree, not a child, when he found his passion in life. Now, at 95, he still trains four times a week with the javelin, the shot, the discus, and the hammer. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll bring home any medals next year, when the Olympics return to Tokyo, but at the national and local levels he continues to dream of glory just like athletes a fraction of his age.
And speaking of people who got a late start, Sumiko Iwamura was seventy-seven years young when she signed up for a class at a school for DJs. She quickly realised that she had a knack for DJing and started to mix the music at local social events. One thing led to another, and now, at 84, she regularly performs into the wee hours at Tokyo nightclubs as DJ Sumirock, combining the techno beats that you’d expect of a DJ with classical music and other genres that you’d never dream of hearing in a club.
Amazingly, she still works in her family’s Chinese restaurant during the day, making hundreds of gyoza, or fried dumplings. Dumplings by day and techno by night: with not one but two ikigai, DJ Sumirock might have several more decades of life to look forward to.
Text Peter Weld
Illustration Leena Kisonen