Self improvement books on Japanese concepts are having a bit of a moment and chief among them is the bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. Centering the book in Okinawa, Japan, authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles focus on the ways of the residents of this island known for longevity, with more centenarians than anywhere in the world.
How do they live this long? The authors, who spent a few years examining the Okinawan lifestyle – including their diet and level of activity – argue one of the reasons is having a clearly defined ikigai, or “the happiness of always being busy”, of having a passionate life purpose. Originally written in Spanish, the book has been widely translated across the world, including into regional Indian languages. Before taking the stage at the Kerala Literature Festival in Calicut last weekend to discuss the book, Francesc Miralles sat down with me to talk about the ideas that drove Ikigai. Edited excerpts:
What got you and Héctor García interested in writing Ikigai?
I live in Barcelona, and Hector lives in Japan. I was going to Kyoto to find documentation for a novel I wrote. We met in Japan through a common friend and became friends. He is married to a woman from Okinawa, and her father told us that we should, being writers, go to a village in the north of Okinawa that has a Guinness World Record of Longevity and ask the residents why and how they manage to live so many years. So we started investigating the topic, reading medical reports of the residents, their nutrition, the climate, and then got the permission to interview the 100 eldest people in the village. After conducting the interviews, we wrote Ikigai.
Were they wary of being written about?
They are very simple people. There are only 2,800 people in the village. They work in agriculture. They thought maybe we were going to write an article and didn't expect it would be a book and such a success. The secret of this book is that it gives a positive vision of being old, if you live with your purpose.
You emphasise that one of the main reasons Okinawans live happy and long is their strong sense of community. How is their understanding of community different from other places in the world?
What the people in Okinawa have is very different from even mainland Japan. They have very strong unions. Everybody knows what is going on with everyone else including problems. They are very open, social, joke a lot and have frequent social gatherings and celebrations. They have a common money box to which they all contribute, for anyone who may need financial help for medical or any other reasons. A report in Spain says what makes old people grow older is being alone — it is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Being in a community can save your life because you feel connected to one another.
Is the concept of Ikigai as simple as it sounds or is there more to it?
It is both simple and complex. It can be defined in a simple way: Ikigai is having a purpose in life and making that purpose the centre of your existence. If we explore this topic further, we go to Viktor Frankl, an Austrian doctor who developed Logotherapy (a psychotherapeutic approach to the search for meaning). After the Second World War, he found that what the people who came to him for consultation were going through was so traumatic, having lost loved ones, that psychoanalysis was not working anymore. What they needed was not an analysis of life, he found, but hope for tomorrow, so that when a person wakes up in the morning, he has at least one thing to do that is meaningful. It is a therapy based on purpose, which may be more effective to understand who we are. If we have a reason to live, you can resist any bad situation.
Does one’s ikigai change over time?
Yes, your ikigai will change if you live many years. When I was 25, my ikigai was travelling. When I was 40, it was being a publisher. Now my ikigai is helping people discover their purpose in life. If you live a hundred years, you would have 4-5 passions. You may feel you have given everything to one passion and then something new opens up in your life. Look at the case of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, who was working as a cook for 10 years in a monastery because he felt he had to live that life. Our lives are dynamic, we are not bound to always do the same thing.
There seems to be growing interest in Japanese concepts of self improvement. Why do you think it has become such a trend? Who is the target audience?
There are different fashions. The western fascination for eastern philosophy started in the 1960s in California, with the hippie movement. But nowadays, the fascination is not focused on a religious experience, but more on bringing it to common, everyday life. Books like ‘Ikigai’ and other recent ones on emotional intelligence promote the idea that we don’t need to be monks to live a harmonious life. Women are the main consumers of these kind of books on self love because they are more interested in understanding and improving themselves and working with emotions. While there are men reading these books too, women have a deeper view of reality and relationships.