Ikigai: The Japanese Meaning of Life

Awakening Your Ikigai

I’m on somewhat of a Japanese roll (not a sushi pun – though sushi sounds good) right now. It’s probably because I’m just starting to plan my trip next summer – yes, I’m 14 months ahead of schedule but there are A LOT of things I need to take care of, so planning helps. So after learn to embrace our imperfections, and to recharge in nature, let’s tackle ikigai, the meaning of life.

Ikigai literally means just that – iki (to live) gai (reason). I feel like I’ve been searching for a raison d’être my whole life; sometimes I’m not sure I’ll ever find it. But ikigai is a different approach to what I’ve considered the meaning of life. It’s not about this grandiose passion that changes the world. It can be applied to anything, big or small. Success is not necessarily a component, though ikigai can lead to great success.

What it ultimately is is a value to live by, a purpose to keep you going, a personal standard to which you hold yourself and live accordingly.I should mention that this is more general than the Venn diagrams circulating the interwebs with the word ikigai slapped on them; those are a Western adaptation (perhaps, even, appropriation?) of the concept.

Five Principles of Ikigai

Starting small.

In order to develop ikigai, it’s important to start small, and take the first steps. It’s not about aiming to write the next bestseller; it’s about writing every day, to perfect your craft, day after day, year after year. The bestseller will come from that. It’s often about fine-tuning the details, until you’re working to the best of your ability.

Releasing oneself.

One must have a spirit of humility. To do things without expecting recognition or reward. The world, the universe, is so much bigger than ourselves. Getting caught up in ourselves detracts from the happiness of life, and can make us fail to appreciate all that we have and all that is around us.

Ikigai, The Meaning of Life

Harmony and sustainability.

Which leads us to harmony and sustainability. This is not just about the environment. While it is important to appreciate and take care of the environment, we must also have social harmony and social sustainability. We must get along with others, build strong relationships in life. Not only does this ensure a better society, it also helps build resilience in the face of tragedy.

Joy of small things.

I’m a big believer in the little things. How someone treats you daily is more important than the big birthday bashes thrown for you once a year. Ikigai is about enjoying and valuing the small pleasures in life. A cup of coffee before at sunrise. The turning of a page. A walk through the forest. Little things can give your life a disproportionate (exponential?) amount of meaning.

Being in the here and now.

Being present is something I’ve been working on this past year, but this resonated more strongly with me than anything else I’ve come across so far. We must appreciate every encounter with people, things, or events, because life is ephemeral.

“Life, after all, is filled with things that only happen once.”

Even if you see someone daily, tomorrow will not be the same as today. Same place, same time, same cup of coffee, and yet, not the same.


The book is a very easy read, full of examples that illustrate the different principles. It’s not always very straightforward; the author often intertwines the principles, which makes it a bit confusing. But I didn’t mind so much, because life isn’t black and white either, is it? I would like to explain that the concept of “releasing oneself” was the most confusing; the above explanation is what I was able to make of the author’s descriptions.

I always thought finding the meaning of life would be like love at first sight – it’ll hit me like a lightning bolt and change my life. But, as Ken Mogi explains in Awakening Your Ikigai, it’s more of an evolution, not a revolution. We’ve already spent our whole lives acquiring values and experiences. Whatever our meaning of life is, finding it won’t be a drastic, life-changing event.

“Because ikigai just reinforces your already-held intuitions, the change will be gradual and modest, like life itself.”

Have you found your ikigai?


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Comments (4)

  • Yogini Sarah 2 years ago Reply

    YES! I so need to read this. My yoga studio owner has “icky guy” illustration in her office and I had read about this a little while after. I found your blog through the grow your blog group on facebook and I’m seeing you read a lot of the things I love to read. I’ll follow ya! 🙂

    Lily 2 years ago Reply

    Thank you Sarah! It was a very nice read, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! Let me know if you found anything I forgot to mention!

  • hcuperus 2 years ago Reply

    I have never heard of this before but it sounds interesting.

  • Jojo Hua 2 years ago Reply

    AHHH! This look looks amazing. My fiance actually is always going on about the Ikigai because he teaches this stuff in his training programs. I wonder if he has heard of this book before. I’m going to secretly buy it for his birthday!

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