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When Héctor García and Francesc Miralles first published their book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, little did they know that the book would be so widely accepted. The duo met centenarians and supercentenarians in the Japanese island of Okinawa that boasts of great longevity. During the course of this anthropological research, the duo discovered that one of the many reasons behind the long lives of Okinawans was ikigai, a Japanese concept that emphasises on finding a purpose to your life. At a time when the pandemic has changed our world and worldview, how can we practise ikigai? Ahead of his appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair, Francesc Miralles — one half of the duo behind the book — tells us why Ikigai has struck a chord with people worldwide, and how the second book The Ikigai Journey: A Practical Guide to Finding Happiness and Purpose the Japanese Way complements the first one.
How did you first encounter the concept of ikigai?
I was travelling every year to Japan. One day, Hector and I were in a park at the centre of Tokyo. Hector is married to an Okinawan woman and it was his father-in-law who said that we should visit Okinawa to investigate this community where people live the longest. He explained the concept of ikigai, which is when we decided that we would travel to northern Okinawa, and ask for permission to conduct interviews. It was always meant to be an anthropological work for an article that later turned into a book. We were curious to meet these masters of long life.
How does The Ikigai Journey: A Practical Guide to Finding Happiness and Purpose The Japanese Way complement the first book which was hugely popular?
The first book was an introduction to the topic of finding purpose in one’s life. It was also the story of our investigation in Okinawa that had interviews with centenarians. It was more of an aspirational book that presented the concept of ikigai and many other things that revolved around the meaning of life. We wrote the second one because many people — especially teachers, psychologists and therapists — said they would have loved a practical book, one which had exercises and activities that could be shared with adults and children. The Ikigai Journey has exercises that are for everyone.
Did you and Hector anticipate the phenomenal success of the first book when you were actually on the ground working on it?
Not at all. I had been working in the publishing industry for 22 years. In fact, I have worked as a publisher myself, and have known what goes into marketing a book. In this industry, it’s a total mystery as to what will make a title successful. When you write a book, you have to assume that the readers will read it in two years or so. You don’t know what will be fashionable then. When Hector and I were in Okinawa, we had no idea if it would be successful. In the beginning, we only wanted to write it as an article for a magazine. And then we realised that the subject had a much bigger potential. We also wondered if it would be interesting only for those who keenly observe Japanese culture. But when the book was initially published by a small Spanish publisher, it became number one from the first day. In first three months, we had about 25 translations. So we discovered — with surprise — that this book was what the world was waiting for.
There is worldwide interest in the Japanese way of life. In your opinion, what about it resonates with people?
Firstly, it’s fashion. Since 1970s and 80s, Californian authors like Alan Watts and other practitioners of psychology have been looking at Japan for its Zen philosophy. From there, everything that’s Japanese — the haikus, ikiwana — has attracted Westerners; in fact, what they do is that they take concepts that are from other places and present it to the world in a very sophisticated way. And that’s very attractive to the world. Films like Lost In Translation showcase the fascination for Japanese culture. I would also say that in the past decade, it has become more important because concepts like ikigai became popular. The word always existed in Japan, but even there, it wasn’t as popular.
At the heart of Ikigai is the concept of finding a purpose in life. A lot of people might already be leading their lives with similar principles without being even aware of what ikigai is. So, does nomenclaturing a principle also make it more glamorous and hence popular?
One of the reasons for the book’s success is that it’s easy to read, brief and accessible. The meaning of life is a topic that has been important for humanity for the past 2,500 years. In the 20th century, Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search For Meaning and he spoke about logotherapy that’s premised on finding a meaning in life. It was psychological practice and consultation. One of the successes of Ikigai is that it has brought forth this idea of a search for meaning of life. You don’t need to be repressed or suffer from a panic attack in order to find your purpose. It’s a nice exercise to even think about it. Every year or every six months, you can recalibrate and think about this.
The world has changed drastically post-pandemic. Do you sense this need to search for meaning of life has increased significantly post-pandemic?
Yes, because all of a sudden, we have discovered that the world is chaotic and unpredictable. And we need to know what direction we should be taking. If we are in difficult times and you see everything changing around you, but know what your purpose in life is, it’s much easier to manage this uncertainty. We have spent more time at home, with our families and ourselves, and have had many questions. We couldn’t do it earlier because we were constantly running from one place to another. I think the pandemic has, in fact, compelled us to find our purpose in life.
Could you elaborate on the Shinkansen Effect that you explore in the book?
There have been two kinds of changes in the Japanese culture — first one is kaisen, which means making it better progressively — one step every day — it is a minimalist way to change. Shinkansen, in Japanese, translates to bullet train, which was created during the first Olympic Games in Tokyo when you needed to have a train that was twice the speed of a normal train. In order to build these, they had to rethink and move away from existing concepts of train. So it’s a very good example of thinking out of the box. When you need something that is so different from your reality, you must forget what you know and rethink it from zero. If you were in a personal crisis, for instance, the best you could do is to think that if you did not have all this experience, what your life would have been like. This is Shinkansen Effect, a radical change that allows you to recreate and reinvent.
Any memorable anecdotes you want to share from your research for the second book?
Before the pandemic, our longest travel was in India for the book tour. For two weeks, I was in different Indian cities. It was very fascinating for me to see how many young entrepreneurs and startups had read the book and were creating their own version of the Shinkansen Effect.
You have authored many books, but the success of Ikigai has taken a life of its own. How do you feel about this one book possibly eclipsing your other body of work?
Before Ikigai, when I was going to a school or university for a talk, I was talking about various things — books, psychology, spirituality. Now if in a year I have 100 conferences to attend, 99 are for Ikigai. But I cannot do anything about it. I am actually grateful. If the world needs me to talk about Ikigai, I will talk about it for as long as I can.
How has your working relationship with Hector evolved?
It is a special relationship. I live in Barcelona, while Hector lives in Tokyo. So there is time difference. We have to find a time slot where he has finished his day job because he’s in technology and directs 100 engineers. By that time, it’s eight in the morning here in Spain. So we end up discussing work over Skype and Zoom.
How do you apply principles of Ikigai in the way you lead your life?
This is a way of life that has to do with your habits. I try not to be a slave to technology. I know when to have my smartphone connected and when not. I have a lot of personal contact with friends. Every day, I find work that gives me a sense of purpose. Basically, when you find your ikigai, you know what’s important in your life. I play a sport every day where I am not working for money, where I am not doing anything because someone has asked me to. I do it only for myself.
You have always argued that living with a sense of community is integral to longevity. At a time when the pandemic has forced us into social distancing, how can we reclaim this sense of community?
But we can reverse this too. Of course, it’s easier to have a community where everyone knows everyone. But this can be done anywhere. You can have your own circle of friends who you protect and who protect you. To have a sense of community, it does not matter whether you are living in a city or a rural area because in the end, you prioritise whether you want to watch television or have a conversation with a real friend. To be in front of a television or a computer all day is not a need, it’s an option.
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