Art of adding life to years
2018-02-26, Cai Hong

I was roaming in a Tokyo park the other day when an old Japanese man, standing with a stick and carrying a camera with a long lens, beckoned me over. I decided to turn away, but he persisted, waving at me to come.

Pointing to something in the woods, he whispered in my ear that a special bird was among the trees. The man then showed me pictures he had taken of birds and flowers in the park.

He said that twice a week, with a lunchbox, he visits the place — which, with its nameplated plants, big and small, is designed to teach children about nature. The journey from his home to the park takes him two hours by subway and bus.

Most of his photos were out of focus, but his passion touched my heart.

Whenever I visit parks in the Japanese capital, I always run into gray-haired, energetic amateur photographers and painters. 

Japanese believe that a sense of purpose and a reason to jump out of bed each morning, or ikigai as they call it, help them live a long, healthy life. Iki means “life”, and gai means “to be worthwhile”.

The Japanese have an average life expectancy of 83.7 years, outliving the rest of the global villagers. Their women, in particular, are incredibly resilient with an average life span of 86.8 years, ranking second after Hong Kong, according to the World Health Organization.

Two writers, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, explored the secrets behind people in Japan staying young while growing old. They did their research in Japan, including interviews in Okinawa, which has the largest number of centenarians in the world.

In their coauthored book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Garcia and Miralles say nurturing friendships, eating light meals, getting enough rest, and doing regular, moderate exercise are all part of the equation of good health. But at the heart of the joie de vivre that inspires the centenarians to keep celebrating birthdays and cherishing each new day is their ikigai.

One surprising thing I notice is how active people remain after they retire. In fact, many Japanese people never really retire — they keep doing what they love for as long as their health allows.

A Japanese friend of mine, Michio Hamaji, worked in the Middle East before retirement. Now the 70-something man is freelancing as a consultant for two companies. I wonder where his energy comes from.

Japanese men are breadwinners for their families. They are remote people who disappear in the morning and reappear at night.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus, in Tokyo, said Japanese people can find the transition away from being worker drones very difficult as they have not nurtured networks outside of their jobs and are often strangers in their neighborhoods and, in some cases, their families.

Studies show that losing one’s sense of purpose can have a detrimental effect. For instance, those who lose their raison d’etre at retirement become more prone to contracting illnesses.

The issue for Japanese people is too much work. 

The country’s unemployment rate was at 2.8 percent in December, the lowest level since 1993. It is said that jobs are available as long as people in Japan want to work.

Japanese government data showed that about 4.3 million people, or 8 percent of the Japanese labor force, worked more than 60 hours a week last year. With a standard workweek of 40 hours, those workers are putting in more than 20 hours of weekly overtime.

Fathering Japan, a nonprofit organization, aims to help dads spend less time at the office and more time with their families.

A package of work-style reforms that will address the chronically long working hours of company employees is expected to be submitted for deliberation at the ongoing sessions of Japan’s Parliament, or Diet.

Despite the culture of working long hours, which drives some people to commit suicide, most Japanese survive and live a long life. Studies have found that purposefulness is one of the strongest predictors of longevity and passion brings meaning to life.

In Japanese culture, retiring and not keeping your mind and body busy is seen as being bad for your health since it disconnects your soul from your ikigai, writer Garcia said.

Noriaki Kasai’s ikigai is working hard to keep the Japanese ski-jump legend’s athletic career going as long as possible. Kasai made history in Pyeongchang, South Korea, last week by competing in his eighth Winter Olympics at the age of 45.

He made his Olympic debut at Albertville in 1992 — the last time that the Winter Games were held the same year as the Summer Games — and won his first Olympic medal at Lillehammer in 1994, taking silver in the team event. He won a silver medal on the large hill and a bronze medal in the team event at Sochi in 2014. He fell short in Pyeongchang with his best result coming in the team event on Feb 19, helping Japan reach sixth place.

But Kasai said he has no plans to hang up his skis anytime soon. Back in Japan on Feb 20, he said he is eyeing the next Winter Games, in Beijing in 2022, and is determined to win another medal.

Failing to win a medal in Pyeongchang seems to have motivated Kasai to make a run at what would be his ninth straight Olympic appearance. If he does in fact compete, Kasai will be 49 years old.

Ken Mogi, a neuroscientist and writer, argued in his 2017 book, The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life, that it does not matter whether “you are a cleaner of the famous Shinkansen bullet train, the mother of a newborn child, or a Michelin-starred sushi chef — if you can find pleasure and satisfaction in what you do and you’re good at it, congratulations, you have found your ikigai”.

Ikigai hides in everyone. Have you found yours?


The author is China Daily’s 

bureau chief in Tokyo.


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