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The Two Japanese Words Everyone Should Learn

When I read online articles and blogs I am frequently disappointed by how much dillydally goes on before telling me what I am looking for. So, I won’t do that here. The two words you should know are “kaizen” and “ikigai.” They are more useful to you because they can literally change your life for the better.

Google either one of these words and you are likely to find countless articles laying out the “elements” of kaizen or some Venn diagram trying to define ikigai. Indeed, it might be well worth your time to investigate both concepts further, but here I will get you started with the fundamental precepts of both. Kaizen means “constant and never-ending improvement.” Ikigai is your “life’s purpose.” Neither translates directly into English. We simply don’t have one word that carries the equivalent weight of either. So, it is worth exploring the depth of meaning implied to each. In so doing, you might get just a little better each day and have a sense of fulfillment while doing it.

The essence is, that even if there is something in life you do well or that is going well, you can always make or do things better.

You will find kaizen comes up a lot in business. It was popularized by Toyota many years ago and is undoubtedly why that company’s cars are often considered some of the most reliable on the market. They created a space for every employee to suggest improvements to the company – from manufacturing to marketing – no matter how small. The company even encourages it. But kaizen is also a philosophy of life. The essence is, that even if there is something in life you do well or that is going well, you can always make or do things better. Seems simple: try to be a little better every day than you were yesterday, and hopefully improve on that tomorrow. Let’s say you feel overweight or unhealthy, it can be intimidating to see some exercise nut jogging or biking down the road, right? But what if today you just did one push-up or took a walk down the block? And the next day you did two push-ups or walked two blocks. You see where this is going. With an element of patience and a mindset of daily improvement, your physical and mental gains are almost limitless.

Ikigai has been associated with Japan’s long life expectancy for many years (check out a book called Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest). Sociologists, scientists, and journalists have researched the phenomenon and derived many conclusions as to why this seems to be the case. I think it boils down to a sense of duty and fulfillment (which, in turn, generates happiness and a will to live).

When I previously studied about ikigai, I recall reading a story of a fisherman in Okinawa who, at over 90 years old, continued to get up every day and go fishing to provide food for his family. The family had other means of providing food, but for him, it was his life’s purpose. His life’s enjoyment.Whatever your life’s enjoyment, get up and do it every day. Cultivate a sense of “this is my life’s purpose” from that thing that you do, whatever it is. You will be glad you did and probably live longer too.

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Mark Reid
Mark Reidhttps://www.zensammich.com/
Mark Reid is the host of the Zen Sammich podcast. Previously, he was an English professor at Kanagawa University, Tokyo University of Science, and Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. He was also an attorney for 10 years, first as an Assistant District Attorney in New York state, and later worked in Securities Law for a large firm in Birmingham, Alabama. He now lives in the countryside of Japan and makes washi (traditional Japanese paper) for a living with his wife, Haruka. A graduate of the University of Alabama in political science and religion, with an MA from Florida State University in philosophy and ethics, and a JD from Syracuse University College of Law, he has a diversified background that through diligence and good fortune has taken him all over the world, including residential stints in Greece, England, and South Korea.

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3 CONVERSATIONS

  1. I enjoyed this article alot. I think we all can use some Kaizen. I believe I do strive to do things better each time. There is always room fir improvement. No matter if it’s on the job or your personal life relationships ect.
    lkigai is a life long search and journey. I don’t know if we ever know what it is. But I know I have always wondered and I try to do my best each day to do something good. Perhaps I will never know my lkigai. But I will continue to do what I enjoy and not give into a feeble mind because I do believe if we fund purpose we do live longer. Great article

    • Thanks so much for your kindness and observations, Eva Marie. I don’t know if it’s that we never know what our ikigai is or if it is more like we have several ikigais and the change or evolve overtime.

      In the first official episode I did of my podcast – a short 7 minute solo episode entitled “The Meaning and Purpose of Life” (not bad, being able to answer those two questions in 7 minutes, huh?) – I mention that I have several ikigais. Some of them relatively small, minor things. And some are larger, more grandiose ikigais.

      I guess there are a lot of different angles you could look at it from, but in the end the idea is essentially this: what motivates you to get out of bed TODAY? And, it is best to always have that answer ready before you go to sleep the night before. Thanks again, Eva Marie.

    • Thanks so much for your kindness and observations, Eva Marie. I don’t know if it’s that we never know what our ikigai is or if it is more like we have several ikigais and the change or evolve overtime.

      In the first official episode I did of my podcast – a short 7 minute solo episode entitled “The Meaning and Purpose of Life” (not bad, being able to answer those two questions in 7 minutes, huh?) – I mention that I have several ikigais. Some of them relatively small, minor things. And some are larger, more grandiose ikigais.

      I guess there are a lot of different angles you could look at it from, but in the end the idea is essentially this: what motivates you to get out of bed TODAY? And, it is best to always have that answer ready before you go to sleep the night before. Thanks again, Eva Marie.

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