García, Héctor, and Francesc Miralles. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. New York: Penguin, 2016. Hard Cover. 198 pages. $27.50.
This is a book about an aspect of Japanese culture written by non-Japanese authors. Although one of them (García) does hold Japanese citizenship, this book is an interesting description of Japan by foreigners. Héctor García has written other books about Japan and the co-author Miralles is a best-selling self-help writer from Spain.
The authors describe and present the Japanese concept of 生き甲斐 (ikigai; “life’s purpose”) as one of the most important elements of “the extraordinary longevity of the Japanese” (2).
In “Prologue—Ikigai: A mysterious word” (1–6), the authors introduce the notion of ikigai and show that it is closely connected to joy (2, 4). In “I. Ikigai: The art of staying young while growing old” (7–16), Japanese longevity is presented as another major topic of the book. The three major elements of longevity according to the authors include community, ikigai, and healthy diet. Continuing to be active, too, is a significant factor that attributes to Japanese longevity (10). In “II. Antiaging Secrets: Little things that add up to a long and happy life” (17–34) discusses stress and how to reduce it. In “III. From Logotheraphy to Ikigai: How to live longer and better by finding your purpose” (35–52), they introduce logotherapy (from psychology) and Morita therapy (from Zen Buddhism) and argue that both are ultimately for finding one’s ikigai (51). In “IV. Find Flow in Everything You Do: How to turn work and free time into spaces for growth” (53–86), after a long discussion of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” (55–70), the authors argue that it is a notion that is found in Japanese culture (e.g., takumi, Ghibli, the recluses, sophisticated simplicity, microflows, attention to detail, meditation, and rituals). They conclude the chapter by urging the reader to use flow to find their ikigai (86). “V. Masters of Longevity: Words of wisdom from the longest-living people in the world” (87–100) is a short chapter that records the interviews the authors conducted. In “VI. Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians: Traditions and proverbs for happiness and longevity” (101–18), the authors present a short collection of the wisdom from the centenarians they met in Ogimi, Okinawa. Some examples include “Don’t worry” (112–13), “Cultivate good habits” (113–14), “Live an unhurried life” (116), and “Be optimistic” (116–17). The reader who is interested in Japanese cuisine will find “VII. The Ikigai Diet: What the world’s longest-living people eat and drink” (119–32) interesting. Not surprisingly they “consume fewer calories” (124) and enjoy a variety of healthy items (123, 127–28), for example, tofu, miso, tuna, carrots, seaweed, cabbage, green tea, and jasmine tea. Moving actively is another known secret in Japanese longevity, which is described in “VIII. Gentle Movements, Longer Life: Exercises from the East that promote health and longevity” (133–62). The authors introduce Japanese taiso and shiatsu, Indian yoga, Chinese tai chi and qigong. In “IX. Resilience and Wabi-sabi: How to face life’s challenges without letting stress and worry age you” (163–80), the authors conclude that the Japanese notions of 侘寂 (wabi-sabi) and 一期一会 (ichigo-ichie) help the Japanese appreciate and live in the present. Although they say that ikigai is a mysterious notion in “Prologue,” in “Epilogue” (181–86), they confidently define it as “the art of living” and ends with the list of ten rules of ikigai (184–85).
This book offers several fascinating findings about Japanese culture. First, by reading this book, the reader can learn that ikigai is a significant factor in many advancements in Japan. Once a Japanese has discovered his or her ikigai (“reasons to live,” 37), the person will not want to retire but continue their work (10) because they love what they do. Second, the authors rightly note that ikigai may be related to Shintoism (76–77). In the authors’ opinion, in Japan, those who have found their ikigai and experience a state of flow in what they do are “the happiest people” (86). Third, the reader learns that Japan is a ritualistic society where rituals are rendered as more important than absolute rules (85) because rituals provide concrete sub-steps to follow to accomplish one’s ikigai (85). Fourth, the reader learns that the Japanese understand both the fleeting nature and the importance of the present life. As for the incompleteness of our present life, the authors introduce the Japanese concept of 侘寂 (wabi-sabi) that shows “the beauty of the fleeting, changeable, and imperfect nature of the world around us” (172). At the same time, however, the Japanese are determined to pursue the importance of the here and now, which is reflected in the phrase一期一会 (ichigo-ichie) (173).
The authors depend on two foreign theories—Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow—to account for the Japanese notion of ikigai. Although I admit that their attempt is insightful and helps the reader see the interconnectedness among them, I wonder if the two can fully describe the nature of ikigai, the mysterious Japanese concept. Furthermore, I doubt the legitimacy of their view that ikigai is, in a sense, being in a state of flow (57, 70, 76, etc.) because, in my opinion, ikigai is a worldview, not a psychological state.
It seems to me that what constitutes the foundation of the notion of ikigai is the common belief that there is no Divine Being and that every human, therefore, is the master of his own life. In that sense, both ikigai and V. Frankl’s logotherapy share one thing in common: each person has both “a unique reason for being” (3) and “the capacity” to accomplish things (42). While reading this book, I was wondering if human beings could really find—or even think of—ikigai if there’s no God. If everything that exists is a result of accidental evolutionary developments whose process somehow had started from nothing, I can hardly believe that our lives can be meaningful. My short life—maximum 100 years—is a meaningless dot in this never-ending pointless passage of time.
This book offers an excellent meta-language with which to understand and explain several aspects of Japanese culture. The notion of ikigai is both a universal and a uniquely Japanese framework that accounts for many fine contributions that Japan has been making for the world. I highly recommend this book.