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What’s Your Reason for Being


As many know, the Japanese Culture is way ahead of the curve in many areas. When you travel to Japan, one of the first things you will notice is their attention to detail - from incredible food preparation, to conservation efforts shown in their architectural design. Instead of cutting down a tree, they will try to build the structure around existing nature. Food and architecture can be seen with your eyeballs but another important element must be found through conversation or the studying of their culture and philosophy.

In an adventure to study the Buddhist / Shinto traditions, I end up lost in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. I find an empty row in the back of a Shinto temple. I am in the middle of a district of Tokyo and blissfully lost in pursuit of witnessing some of the locals practicing their forms of meditation. As I sit all alone, I begin to hear a beautiful Shinto chant that instantly puts me into a state of trance. Mesmerized and zoned off in thought, a tiny elderly Japanese woman catches the corner of my eye with a bright smile that lights up her entire face. I am somewhat hoping to go unnoticed but clearly I stick out like a sore thumb. She walks up to me and can clearly tell I speak no Japanese, so she begins trying to speak English. She says, “You Pay? You Pay?” A bit confused I pull out my wallet and she laughs at me. She flashes another massive smile. Taking my hand, she points to the front of the congregation, “You Pray.”  

It’s hard to explain how genuine and sweet this woman is as she’s radiating happiness and the desire to teach me about her religion. She asks me, “You have bead?” I sadly shake my head, no. She smiles and reaches into her purse. Out comes a set of beads similar to a rosary, which looks like she has prayed over them daily for 15 years. She says, “Yours now.” I give her the biggest hug and she squeezes me back. She starts wrapping the beads around my fingers until my hands are tied in a comfortable knot. She begins teaching me the different words of the chant. Needless to say my pronunciation is terrible but I’m belting it out loud and proud. Her friends start to gather around and they all laugh as I gladly make a fool of myself. Every so often she stops me to tell a story. A few English words here and there but I really have no idea what she is saying - although I can tell these are exciting stories by her enthusiasm. I begin to make faces and act out what I think she is saying with my body. She and her friends laugh uncontrollably at my goofy faces. Realizing I am lost in a foreign land, in a strange temple, acting obnoxious and goofy, singing in a foreign tongue with little old ladies, I laugh back even harder.

After about an hour of all that she asks me to write down my address and say’s “I send you book.” We get a picture together, and I show her a photo of a train to ask which direction to the metro. Instead of pointing as I expected, she takes my hand and begins to walk with me. I try to explain she doesn’t need to do that, but it’s useless. She just flashes that massive smile again and keeps walking. 6 blocks later we reach the metro, she turns to me grabbing both hands, looks deeply into my eyes and says, “You make me happy.” On the verge of tears, I try to explain my appreciation for her, primarily with the size of my smile and hug.

After returning to the states a month later, I continue to think about this experience. Unexpectedly, a package arrives at my front door and it is clearly from Japan based on all the calligraphy. In the sweetest old woman handwriting is my name and address.  I rip it open in excitement and it is filled with books, notes and even a DVD. The level of love that the Japanese show to complete strangers will make you reconsider how you treat the random encounters in your day to day activities. There are many subtle learnings from this story, but that is not why I am sharing it. I have included it because of what I found in one of the books she sent. It is a Japanese concept that has shaped many of the positive aspects of their culture. Based on the happiness of the woman I met, I believe she has an incredible sense of the Japanese philosophical concept called, “Ikigai.”


生き甲斐 – Ikigai


The pronunciation sounds like “icky guy” like the gross guy that tries to sit next to you on the subway. The direct translation to English is a bit of a challenge. But Ikigai is often referred to as, “A reason for being,” “reason to get out of bed,” “life worth living,” or “thing that you live for.” Essentially, Ikigai is referring to your life purpose. It is a way to develop powerful meaning in your life by focusing on something that is the most important to you based on your beliefs, values and sense of identity. Everyone’s Ikigai is different, and typically it will evolve throughout the course of your life. According to the Japanese, determining your Ikigai, is most important first step for anyone who cares about living a great life. Living your Ikigai, is step two.

Multiple studies have linked Ikigai to decreased disease, increased life span and overall satisfaction and happiness. Okinawa, Japan is referred to as the Village of Longevity. Life expectancy has been ranked as some of the highest in the world for many years. The locals refer to their Ikigai as one of the primary reasons for this.

In American culture, the concept of having a purpose in life is nothing new. There has been an incredible amount of research and studies which support the effects purpose has on longevity, productivity, life quality, happiness and much more. Instruction on how to arrive at your purpose, is not well described in the US. People will say things like, “Follow you heart,” or “Do something you love.” To some that may work, but that is very vague advice. The Japanese have developed a diagram to help determine your own Ikigai. There are four intersecting elements, which must be reached to find a true, Ikigai.

  1. What You Love

  2. What You’re Good At

  3. What the World Needs

  4. What You Can be Paid For


            Finding your Ikigai is an amazing way to add fulfillment into your life. If you know someone who is trying to determine their sense of direction, this may be a useful tool to provide them with. Parents should introduce their children to these ideas. When learned at an early age, it becomes much easier to identify a meaningful Ikigai over the course their life. You may already have your own Ikigai, but if not - finding it does not occur over night. Setting a personal mission to determine one is a great place to start. Study the diagram and see where you currently fall. Consider friends or family and see if you can pinpoint where they fall on the Ikigai diagram.

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