Ikigai

Excerpt from Awakening Your Ikigai: How the Japanese wake up to joy and purpose every day (2017) by Ken Mogi (pgs. 67-73, 79-81)

NOTE TO THE READER

The Five Pillars of Ikigai

Throughout this book, I refer to the Five Pillars of ikigai. They are:

  • Pillar 1: Starting small
  • Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
  • Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
  • Pillar 4: The joy of small things
  • Pillar 5: Being in the here and now

These pillars come up frequently, because each one provides the supportive framework—the very foundations—that allows ikigai to flourish. They are not mutually exclusive or exhaustive, nor do they have a particular order or hierarchy. But they are vital to our understanding of ikigai, and will provide guidance as you digest what you read in the forthcoming pages and reflect on your own life. Each time they will come back to you with a renewed and deepened sense of significance.

I hope you enjoy this journey of exploration.


CHAPTER 4: The sensory beauty of ikigai

A starry bowl in good condition, if put in an auction, would fetch millions of dollars. Of the ones that remain, the Inaba starry bowl (inaba tenmoku) is regarded as the finest of the three. It was handed down from the Tokugawa Shogunate to the house of Inaba, and would fetch tens of millions of dollars if put on the market today.

Koyata Iwasaki, the fourth president of Mitsubishi Conglomerate, and one of the richest men in modern Japan, became the owner of that particular bowl in 1934. However, considering himself unworthy of it, Iwasaki never used it at his tea ceremonies.

The Japanese certainly make a fuss of pretty bowls. After all, a bowl is just a bowl, and its function is to contain liquid.

In terms of that capacity, it is no different from any ordinary bowl in the market. And while the enthusiasm surrounding these receptacles would surely find parallels in other cultures, one feels that there is something unique in the Japanese culture that makes the passion for them quite extraordinary. Where does this kind of sensory enthusiasm come from?

In Chapter 1, we referred to this lexical hypothesis, which states that expressions for important personalty traits in life gradually and eventually come to constitute a part of everyday language, as is the case with ikigai. There is another interesting aspect of the Japanese language, worth focusing on and particularly pertinent here.

In Japanese, a dog barks wan wan, while a cat goes nya nya. In English, they go bowwow and meow respectively. Every language has its share of such onomatopoeic expressions, but it is generally considered that the Japanese language has an inordinately abundant variety of them.

They are sometimes referred to as Japanese sound symbolism, and they are often made up of the same word said twice.

For example, bura bura means a nonchalant, carefree way of walking, while teka teka describes a shiny surface. Kira kira refers to the glittering of light, whereas gira gira refers to a more intense, almost blinding source of light, such as the headlight of a motorbike at night. Ton ton refers to a light tapping sound, whereas don don refers to a heavy, thudding one. A dictionary of onomatopoeia edited by Masahiro Ono lists 4,500 instances of sound symbolism.

With the growing popularity of Japanese manga and anime, an increasing number of people around the world are interested in Japanese sound symbolism, as many of the expressions are frequently used in popular manga and anime works. However, Japanese onomatopoeia is difficult to master, partly because of the subtlety in the way it is used and partly because there is so much of it. Unlike in some cultures, the Japanese continue to use sound symbolism in their adult life, as well as in childhood. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the Japanese to use sound symbolism when discussing things in a professional context. Such a perception structure has certainly developed more in some fields of industry than others, for example, in gastronomy. You can imagine sushi chefs such as Jiro Ono and experienced fish brokers such as Hiroki Fujita using onomatopoeia in their conversation, because sound symbolism is often used to describe the texture and flavor of food. Similarly, you can be sure samurai warriors used onomatopoeia to discuss the quality of swords, from the glitter to the texture of the blade surface. Manga artists make frequent use of it, too, using words such as ton ton and don don to reflect the subtle nuances of the actions of their characters.

The fact that there is so much sound symbolism in the Japanese language implies, according to the lexical hypothesis, that there is a correlation between it and the way in which the Japanese perceive the world. The Japanese seem to distinguish between many different nuances of experience, paying attention to the plethora of sensory qualities. The proliferation of onomatopoeia reflects the importance of detailed sensory nuances in the life of the Japanese.

Such attention to detail has nurtured a culture in which craftspeople continue to receive respect in an era where waves of innovation promise to change our lives.

Japan continues to have a large number of traditional products made by craftspeople. Craftspeople, although no outspoken or flamboyant, are held in high esteem and play pivotal roles in Japanese society. Often, their lives are regarded as the embodiment of ikigai—lives devoted to creating just one thing properly, however small.

The work of craftspeople is often very labor-intensive and time-consuming. As a result, the product tends to be highly refined and of excellent quality. Japanese consumers recognize that time and effort has gone into the creation of these goods and appreciate the quality, in such diverse areas as the crafting of knives, swords, blades, ceramics, lacquerware, washi paper, and of weaving.

The ethics and work of craftspeople continue to have an impact on a wide range of economic activities. Similarly, the Japanese understanding and handling of the great variety of sensory qualities have led to correspondingly fine artisanship and manufacturing techniques.

Although Japanese companies have been losing out for many years in the field of consumer electronics, one area in which the Japanese are still preeminent is the manufacturing of intricate instruments such as medical cameras. High-end precision engineering and commitment to perfection makes Japanese medical cameras among the best in the world. Likewise, in the case of semiconductor devices, Japanese manufacturers have the advantage, the accumulation of knowhow and carefully coordinated operations being a must for efficient and high quality production.

Paying attention to the multitude of sensory experiences is necessary to execute the finely tuned operations supporting craftsmanship and high-tech manufacturing. As with craftsmanship, these cognitive capabilities are reflected in the linguistic make-up of the language. The richness of the Japanese language as regards onomatopoeia reflects such fine-tuned sensibilities.

***

As we will see in Chapter 8, in the Japanese mind, each sensory quality is equivalent to a god [emphasis mine]. The Japanese tend to believe that there is an infinite depth to the nuances displayed by the multitudes of colors in nature and artifacts, just as the story of God creating the whole universe is deep.

[…]

The Cambridge-based neuroscientist Nicholas Humphrey, who discussed the functional significance of consciousness in his book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, argues that consciousness is functionally significant because it gives us sensory pleasure—a reason to carry on with life. Humphrey takes up the extraordinary example of the ritual prisoners’ last breakfast before their execution in the United States. The prisoners have the final privilege of choosing their own personal menu. Humphrey quotes the prisoner’s last menu as posted on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. One inmate might select fried fish fillet, French fries, orange juice, and German chocolate cake, another might go for a plate of chicken katsu. The point is that they give considerable thought to the very last meal of their life, a testimony of the importance of the sensory pleasures we derive from our food. It can be said to be an ultimate form of being in the here and now. It is almost as though finding ikigai in a given environment could be regarded as a form of biological adaptation. You could find your ikigai in a wide range of conditions, and the key to that resilience is sensory pleasure.

In the contemporary science of consciousness, sensory qualities that accompany an experience, including those in culinary consumption, are called “qualia”. The term refers to the phenomenological properties of sensory experience: the redness of red, the fragrance of a rose, or the coolness of water are all examples of qualia. How qualia arise from the activities of neurons in the brain is the greatest unsolved mystery in neuroscience, or, indeed, in the whole of science [emphasis mine]. Nothing turns us on like a great mystery. If you put a strawberry in your mouth (it does not have to be one of the expensive perfect fruits sold at Sembikiya), you have a certain spectrum of qualia, which would presumably give you pleasure. And the pleasure is equal to the mystery of life.

Earlier, we drew our attention to the fact that there are many examples of onomatopoeia (sound symbolism) in the Japanese language. Onomatopoeia, after all, is just representation of various qualia encountered in life.

There is a deep link here. In a mysterious way, releasing oneself is linked to the discovery of the sensory pleasures. The Japanese culture, with its abundance of onomatopoeia, has cultivated this linkage, nurturing a very robust system of ikigai in its course. By relieving ourselves of the burden of the self, we can open up to the infinite universe of sensory pleasure. 


See also:


Key quote from his manifesto:

The elucidation of the origin of qualia-rich subjectivity is important not only as an activity in the natural sciences, but also as a foundation and the ultimate justification of the whole world of the liberal arts. Bridging the gap between the two cultures (C. P. Snow) is made possible only through a clear understanding of the origin of qualia and subjectivity.


Qualia symbolize the essential intellectual challenge for humanity in the future. The impact of its elucidation will not be limited to the natural sciences. The liberal arts, religion, and the very concept of what a man is will be reassessed from their very foundations.


– Ken Mogi in The Qualia Manifesto (1998)

Gaze upon the vast landscape of unexplored qualia – delight in the treasures and hidden gems waiting to be found in the state-space of consciousness.

2 comments

  1. John · September 24

    When I read your words I’m usually just stunned. You speak like a genius, your words are as beautiful as they are smart. Where did you learn all of this, what did you study, and how can I help you unlock all of life’s secrets?

  2. David Ball · September 17

    Thanks! “The purpose of Art is to divine the future “.
    That’s attributed to Kandinsky, often cited as the founder of Abstact Art …well, there were others before him…. see: https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-27-spring-2013/first-abstract-artist-and-its-not-kandinsky

    Meanwhile, a good book is “Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light” by Leonard Shlain.

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