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Life with a sense of purpose

Japanese have a unique outlook on life, inspired by their philosophical history and Buddhist religious practices
12:00 AM Jun 08, 2024 IST | B L RAZDAN
life with a sense of purpose

Japanese philosophy has been practised and studied for thousands of years. Historically a fusion of foreign as well as Japanese cultural elements, the Japanese have a unique outlook on life, inspired by their philosophical history and Buddhist religious practices.


Perhaps influenced by Buddhist practises reproaching materialism, the Japanese especially have great tips on organising your home and ridding your life of unnecessary items that weigh you down. “If it’s not yours, don’t take it. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say it. If you don’t know, shut up.” There are great life lessons one can learn from the Japanese cultural wisdom.


The 20th Century philosophy movement that combined Western philosophy and religious ideas and moral insights into the East Asian cultural tradition is referred to as The Kyoto School. To acquaint yourself and gain some insight into this fascinating culture, it is imperative to understand various Japanese concepts and words of wisdom that have entered the global lexicon, such as mottainai and kawaii; one recent newcomer being ikigai.


A broad concept, it refers to that which brings value and joy to life: from people, such as one’s children or friends, to activities including work and hobbies. “There is no word like it anywhere in the world,” says Héctor Garcia, co-author of the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, which helped push ikigai into the global spotlight.


Explaining that having an ikigai is the key to leading a happy life with a healthy body and mind, this book - which has been translated into 63 languages - has sold more than 3 million copies since its release in 2016. “When you feel down, just thinking about your ikigai will change something in you. I receive comments even now from readers who say their lives were transformed by this word,” says Garcia.


Ikigai can be described as having a sense of purpose in life, as well as being motivated. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, ikigai was thought to be experienced towards either the betterment of society or improvement of oneself. According to a study by Michiko Kumano, feeling ikigai as described in Japanese usually means the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that follows when people pursue their passions.


Activities that generate the feeling of ikigai are not forced on an individual; they are perceived as being spontaneous and undertaken willingly, and thus are personal and depend on a person’s inner self. According to psychologist Katsuya Inoue, ikigai is a concept consisting of two aspects: “sources or objects that bring value or meaning to life” and “a feeling that one’s life has value or meaning because of the existence of its source or object”.


Inoue classifies ikigai into three directions – social ikigai, non-social ikigai, and anti-social ikigai - from a social perspective. Social ikigai refers to ikigai that are accepted by society through volunteer activities and circle activities. An asocial ikigai is an ikigai that is not directly related to society, such as faith or self-discipline.

Anti-social ikigai refers to ikigai, which is the basic motivation for living through dark emotions, such as the desire to hate someone or something or to continue having a desire for revenge. National Geographic reporter Dan Buettner suggested ikigai may be one of the reasons for the longevity of the people of Okinawa, who have less desire to retire, as people continue to do their favourite job as long as they remain healthy.

Mottainai is a Japanese phrase conveying a sense of regret over waste, or to state that one does not deserve something because it is too good. The term can be translated to English as “What a waste!” or the old saying, “Waste not, want not.”

Japanese environmentalists have used the term to encourage people to “reduce, reuse and recycle”. Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai has used the term at the United Nations as a slogan to promote environmental protection.

Kōjien, widely considered the most authoritative Japanese dictionary, lists three definitions for the word mottainai (classical Japanese terminal form mottainashi): (i) inexpedient or reprehensible towards a god, buddha, noble or the like; (ii) awe-inspiring and unmerited/undeserved, used to express thanks; (iii) an expression of regret at the full value of something not being put to good use. In contemporary Japanese, mottainai is most commonly used to indicate that something is being discarded needlessly, or to express regret at such a fact. Kōhei Hasegawa, then a professor at Nagano University, noted that the definition (iii) in Kōjien was the one used most frequently by modern Japanese. The second sense is seen in Japanese newspapers when they refer to members of the imperial family as having been present at such-and-such an event, not necessarily implying wastefulness but rather gratitude or awe. Daigenkai, another Japanese dictionary, gives a similar ordering of these definitions.

Hasegawa traces this increase in the frequency of meaning (iii) to a historical semantic shift in which the original meaning, meaning (i), became less prominent. Citing the Kyoto University Japanese literature scholar Kōshin Noma, Hasegawa states that the word originated as slang durin the Kamakura period, and that by the mid15th century had perhaps already acquired the meanings of (ii) and (iii). An archaic Japanese dictionary dates the use of the term “mottainai” back to the 13th-century. Two frequently-cited early examples of usages of mottainashi, given in both Kōjien and Daigenkai, are the Genpei Jōsuiki and the Taiheiki. A form of the word, motaina appears in the late-14th or early-15th century Noh play Aritōshi, apparently in a sense close to (i) above.

The word nai in mottainai resembles a Japanese negative (“there is no mottai”), but may have originally been used as an emphatic (“tremendous mottai”). Mottai itself is a noun appearing as such in, for example, the dictionary Gagaku-shū, which dates to 1444 Daigenkai gives buttai as an alternate reading of the word, and it appears written with the kanji. It means (i) the shape/form of a thing or (ii) something that is, or the fact of being, impressive or imposing (monomonoshiki koto). The compound that is pronounced as mottai in Japanese appears in Sino-Japanese dictionaries as a Chinese word in a sense similar to (ii), but mottainashi does not, as it is an indigenous Japanese word.

Kawaii is a Japanese cultural aesthetic concept centred around cuteness. It encompasses a wide range of styles and interests, including fashion, toys, stationery, and popular culture. The kawaii aesthetic is characterized by childlike elements, such as cute characters, pastel colours, and playful designs. It often involves an appreciation for all things adorable, and a desire to bring joy and happiness into one’s life. In Japan, kawaii has become a cultural phenomenon and is embraced by people of all ages. It has also gained popularity globally and has influenced fashion, art, and design in many other countries. The aesthetic cuteness of Japan is very appealing to people globally. The wide popularity of Japanese kawaii is often credited with it being “culturally odourless”. The elimination of exoticism and national branding has helped kawaii to reach numerous target audiences and span every culture, class, and gender group. The palatable characteristics of kawaii have made it a global hit, resulting in Japan’s global image shifting from being known for austere rock gardens to being known for “cute-worship”.

To conclude one may like to add these one dozen Japanese wisdom quotes for the benefit of the readers: (i) If a problem can be solved, it’s not worth worrying about, if it can’t be solved, it’s useless to worry about it. (ii) Having taken the time to think, venture to act. Once you’ve done so, stop thinking. (iii) It is better to be the enemy of a good person than the friend of a bad one. (iv) He who strongly desires to rise up will think of a way to build a ladder. (v) He who drinks does not know the dangers of wine; he who doesn’t drink does not know its benefits. (vi) Beautiful flowers do not bear good fruit. (vii) Do everything that you can and leave the rest to fate. (viii) Excessive honesty often borders on stupidity. (ix) Fortune will always come into a house with laughter. (x) Even monkeys can fall from their trees. (xi) If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub. (xii) A bad craftsman never made a perfect vase. 

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.