The Japanese art of happiness: From ikigai, to ritual, to embracing old age

Written by Andrea Brody

“Older people often showed me how to do things properly and instructed me, if I were to serve tea, how to serve it properly, with proper attention,” says social anthropologist Iza Kavedžija. “We might tend to think of that kind of attitude as quite formal, perhaps unnecessary, but one thing that I noticed when I spent a lot of time with older people is that it's also a kind of mastery, and a lot of things can be done masterfully and beautifully.” Photo by Shutterstock.

Navigating the relentless pace of the modern world often means being bombarded by daily distractions, sleep deprived and perhaps a little stressed or anxious. It’s not easy. When it comes to looking for a moment of reflection and recalibration, it’s worthwhile to reexamine some of the philosophies and practices rooted in one of the world’s oldest cultures: Japan. 

Jonathan Bastian talks with Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of “The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise.” Born and raised in England, Iyer spent much of his younger adult life in New York and California before moving to Japan in 1992. From his first day there, Iyer recalls, he felt, “a mysterious sense of recognition … as soon as I spent my first morning in Japan walking around near the airport in Tokyo — not, obviously, an interesting or romantic place — I felt, ‘I know this place and this place knows me.’”

More: In search of paradise — and why travel writer Pico Iyer says it may be within

Since then, Iyer has discovered that the more time he spends there, the better. Perhaps that’s because, at 66, he’s aged into a society in which being “older” is also culturally revered and embraced. 

“Maybe the real reason I wanted to move was [because] it's a very mature, seasoned old society. For me, going to Japan was like seeking out an elder,” Iyer says. “I've reached the age when I really want to learn how to live and what it all means, and I felt that Japan could offer that as well as anywhere.”

The Eastern philosophy that dominates Japanese cultural traditions centers itself on a strong sense of community. In contrast to the US, where individualism is revered, Japanese society is generally collectivistic, with people often viewing themselves and others as members of cooperative groups or units. Accordingly, older members of Japanese society are respected for their wisdom and maturity.  

More: The external and internal pilgrimage: Author Pico Iyer on the purpose of journeying in modern times

Iyer also discusses the concept of impermanence, a tenet of Buddhist philosophy that Iyer says is “deeply woven into every fabric” of Japanese society.  

“Every April, everyone races out to see the cherry blossoms, precisely because they last for only ten days. And if they were to last, even for a month, there'd be none of the excitement and none of the sense of grabbing the moment,” he says. “[It’s a] Japanese truth, which is a universal truth: Nothing lasts forever.” 

Pico Iyer, pictured here, explains that in Japanese culture, “the fact that nothing lasts is a reason that everything matters, every moment matters, and one can't take anything for granted.” Photo courtesy of Derek Shapton. 

More: Spiritual writer Pico Iyer says now is the time confront who we really are

Social and medical anthropologist Iza Kavedžija has done extensive research and fieldwork with two distinct groups of people in the Kansai region of Japan. Her primary focus, and the subject of her book “Making Meaningful Lives: Tales from an Aging Japan,” has been examining how older members of Japanese society are cared for by the community and by one another. 

In Osaka, Kavedžija observed that in order to maintain social links and ties, older people have created a social network — a sort of social safety net that they need in order to live well. Surprisingly, it's Japan's older generation that’s “driving societal changes,” explains Kavedžija. “We don't tend to think of older people as those who are driving the processes of social change and crafting new social relations, but that's exactly what they were doing.”

Another practice Kavedžija observed in her research, and which in recent years has gained international traction as a lifestyle philosophy, is that of ikigai, which translates to “reason for being.”

“Ikigai can sometimes be quite a modest pursuit, some small hobby or small set of interests, or even a form of attention,” explains Kavedžija.  “Being able to observe the birds in the garden through the window, and being able to do that every day, and that simply gets you out of bed, can be seen as a form of ikigai. … It's looking out for those small things in life that kind of get you going.”

Kavedžija says Japanese philosophy is very much guided by the principles of humility, gratitude, and community. What struck her, particularly in her research with the elderly, was the cultivation of broad networks of care. 

“Even among fairly old people in their 80s and 90s, they themselves were not only just recipients of care, but were very caring and involved in numerous caring relationships, which would scaffold other people's lives,” she says.

While researching Japanese society, Iza Kavedžija, pictured here, observed that, “when disposing of things, people would often kind of thank things for their service, or try to find a good home for an item, passing it on to someone who needs it. And this way of being in the world is quite helpful in a society where there's a lot of objects, and there's a lot of consumerism.”

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  • Pico Iyer - author of "The Art of Stillness : Adventures in Going Nowhere, and, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells"
  • Iza Kavedžija - Author; Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology, University of Cambridge


Andrea Brody