Time published an article about the Dutch lifestyle concept of doing nothing called “Niksen”. “And”, they say, “you’re about to see it everywhere.” As a Dutch person I was quite surprised. "Niksen" is a Dutch word, yes. A verb and indeed, it means “doing nothing”. It’s just nothing more than that, a word. Not a lifestyle concept.
This is exactly the same feeling I have with the Japanese “lifestyle concept” called “ikigai”. It is true that Japanese culture has interesting elements that you can practice for better health or that can give you inspiration. For example, shinrinyoku (forest bathing) or kintsugi (the art of repairing ceramics with gold). “Ikigai” is just not one of them. It isn’t something you can practice or train. When I asked a friend of mine what “ikigai” meant to her, she said: “It’s a normal Japanese word, we use it when we are talking about “the purpose of life”. Nothing more. We’re just too busy to think about it more deeply, let alone to consider it a way of life.”.
The “Ikigai model”, the diagram with circles, is entirely made up by western people. The exercise it aims for is just too ego-centric to be of Japanese origin. What do you love, what are you good at, what can you be paid for - it is not likely a Japanese person will ask herself of himself these questions. To me, it even shows a complete lack of understanding of Japanese culture where in general the self is subordinate to the group.
It apparently fulfills a need, though, with a lot of western people, searching for more purpose in their life. It looks very similar to the “find your why” by marketing specialist Simon Sinek, added with the mystic that Japan evokes.
The notion that “ikigai” is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and that it is a lifestyle that many Japanese people consciously pursue, is utter bullshit.
It might be an issue with the elderly, especially newly retired men, though. They have to find a new way to give their life purpose after being employed for so many years. I even found some elderly homes or activity centers for elderly people that are called “ikigai”. So in real life, in Japan, “finding your ikigai” might be more a matter of logistics than lifestyle.
Nishikimarket is a fresh food market in the heart of Kyoto. At this moment a major touristic attraction, but when we visited on December 31st, 2014, it was crowded by locals, doing their shopping for "oshogatsu" - new year. Here I took this picture (left) of "the friendly maron-man" - smilingly handing out a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts to his client. In autumn and winter chestnuts are a popular delicacy. They are called in Japanese "kuri" but also "maron" after the French word "marron".
This picture is on canvas in our living room, and I always say that when we visit Kyoto again I wil go to Nishikimarket, find the guy and give it to him. Never been back, though. It's been almost 5 years now, so I often think that he may not be even working there anymore. But guess what! 24kitchen (food and cooking channel) featured Japan in a series at the beginning of this year and we watched it recently online. And look who was on television? Just for a second, but unmistakably our friendly maron-man! Really happy to see him, alive and kicking, still smiling, still roasting chestnuts at Nishikimarket.