Japan Gets Serious About Ikigai

By now, some readers will have heard of the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai’ that is becoming popularized by bloggers and life-advisors in western countries. Like so many words in Japanese, it is somewhat vague and legitimately translatable in a range of ways. Essentially it connotes that particular thing that gets you up in the morning and makes life worth living – in short, your reason to live. On a recent visit to an elder care facility, one of our researchers asked a nurse what she thought ikigai meant. The answer was that thing you did in your life that makes you look back with no regrets when it comes to the end of your life.

The Venn diagram below (published in the Toronto Star) has become understood as a Japanese model, but it’s unlikely that Japanese think of the idea in such a structured way. Instead, like many things in Japan, Ikigai is common sense and a humble approach to happiness that comes in small steps and in the process of striving to live meaningfully day by day. Further, like many ingrained cultural factors, people don’t talk about it as it’s somewhat internal and personal.

Nevertheless, ikigai is widely recognized by the Japanese as a fundamental need. The concept of Ikigai is recognized as a supportive element to promote, maintain and enhance a healthy lifestyle, leading to a longer life of independence. In one form or another, government initiatives have been around since the Sixties. Still, a more determined and formal approach has been taken in recent years as the aging status of Japan’s society becomes of greater concern. It is a government policy to actively foster initiatives that help citizens realize it in their lives, which are now extended compared to previous generations. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2020, the average life expectancy in Japan reached record highs for both women and men, at 87.7 years and 81.6 years. In line with this, the government is currently paving the way to increase the retirement age to 70 from 65 to keep older adults in the shrinking workforce longer. After such an unprecedentedly long time in the workforce, with retirement, people’s lives can lack direction, and their health can suffer. Men are a particular target for these initiatives as they, in particular, tend to find singular purpose and meaning in their lives through work.

Ikigai centers are established on a city level, enabling a wide coverage across the nation. For example, Tokyo’s Kita ward offers a proactive response to ikigai. Their Ikigai Lifestyle Center is a one-stop port-of-call for those looking for something to do with their time or who would like to contribute to others. The ward says that they aim to build infrastructure to support an era when people live to be 100 years old. The key to achieving this is to recognize that it is not only the physical needs of people that matter, but their ability to be kept busy, meaningfully stimulated and connected to others. This is realized through activities that encourage social participation in the elderly such as employment, volunteering, community activities, and multi-generational exchanges.

In Tokyo’s wealthy Minato ward, the Shiba Iki Iki Plaza initiative is targeted at over 60s. It offers various opportunities across several different sites to engage in hobbies, recreation, learning, health and various cultural activities. An essential aim of their events is to connect older people with younger people – creating a cross-generational connection, which is increasingly seen as necessary for the old and the young alike.

Seniors can visit daily and are encouraged to hang out and socialize in the café spaces. Gallery space is provided to hold regular exhibitions, including painting and photography. Concerts, as well as events celebrating key seasonal festivals such as Kan, Setsubun and Tanabata, are held. Furthermore, classes are on offer covering a wide range of areas such as karaoke, calligraphy, musical instruments, folk songs, haiku, cooking, languages, arts and crafts, aromatherapy, hula, voice training and much more! Exercise and strength training is also facilitated in the gym, and there is a modern dance studio.

The city of Toyama extends the concept of ikigai to people of all ages. Its Kenko Ikigai Center is centrally located in the town, is free to enter and offers over 250 programs. The range of the activities provided, with a focus on physical health and exercise as well as culture, is similarly impressive as Minato-ku’s. Still, Toyama also has an emphasis on the needs of mothers and children. They even advertise on TV. There are similar examples of this all over Japan.

The emphasis on ikigai is creating a new job description and official qualification – that of the ‘Health and Ikigai Advisor”. This job is increasingly essential to assist men to make the transition from working life to the rest of their life – from becoming, as the Ikigai Zaidan website puts it, “A company person to a social person”. Ikigai Zaidan is not a governmental organization, but is what is called in Japan an ‘Ippan Zaidan Houjin/ 一般財団法人’, or General Incorporated Foundation (a type of NPO). The training for advisors focuses not only on the practical issues found in dealing with life in retirement but also on actively facilitating self-actualization for their clients. Advisors graduating from these sorts of programs are usually over 65 because they are required to provide their services with the kind of experience and empathy that only people of age can provide.

For those seniors that want to keep working, the Silver Human Resource Centers found all over Japan connect retired people with relevant working opportunities. For many, ikigai manifests itself in paid work that can extend beyond retirement. This is a boon for those looking for work and those who can benefit from subsided labour from people with solid experience and lots of motivation.

While official initiatives to engage the community, especially elders, in physical and emotional wellbeing are not unique to Japan, what perhaps can be said to be given extra emphasis here is people’s happiness. The idea that social welfare is not simply about meeting practical and physical needs is common sense in Japan, providing some inspiring examples for people in the rest of the world to emulate.

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