Japanese happiness and Ikigai aren’t what they seem. Recently Japan has been featured in many books that we are a nation of healthy, happy and long-living people. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life written by Hector Garcia for instance, portrays how our lifestyle and mindset make us stay healthy.
I think the book is well written and a lot of things mentioned in the book are true: I agree with the fact that Japan is a country of health and longevity. Nevertheless, I don’t think we are a nation of happiness.
It is clear from the World Happiness Report; we are ranked 54th in 2018, and we have been ranked under 40th since this survey began in 2012, while Denmark which is famous for hygge has always been ranked within top 5, deserving its reputation of being a symbol for happiness.
Well, of course, the report doesn’t represent all aspects of happiness, and yet I think there are certain truths in it.
From my observation, too, many people in Japan don’t seem happy.
★Long Working Hours
A lot of people I know work overtime almost every day, and many of them work 12 hours or more each day. They get little vacation: The longest vacation they can get is about one week. It means they have very little time to spend with their family.
★Mental Stress from Interpersonal Relationships at Workplace
On top of the long working hours, many people get stress from their communication at work. Many companies have rigid hierarchical relationships, and it applies to our society in general, too. We have to use a polite language when we speak to people older which means we can rarely feel at ease talking to others even when we meet people outside of work.
★Examination Centered School Education
Unlike schools in Europe, school children in Japan are constantly faced with examinations, and many of them go to cram schools after school. They are always studying and don’t have time to play and relax.
★Conformity and Lack of Individualism and Diversity
The majority of the Japanese people conform to society, and there is almost zero tolerance for diversity.
★Lack of Democracy in Politics
Japan has mostly been ruled by one political party in our modern history. Liberal Democratic Party, which is a conservative party despite its name, has been in power for most of the time in the last 50 years and more: There have been only two occasions when other parties came in power, unlike in the U.S. where the Democrats and Republicans alternate to rule and in the U.K. where the Labor and the Conservative often change their positions.
★114th in Gender Equality Rankings
Japan came in 114th in gender equality rankings by World Economic Forum in 2017.
Well, I can go on listing elements to show you how unhappy Japan is, but it is endless, and you get my point by now.
How can the country with a high reputation for health and longevity be so unhappy?
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★The Elements Contributing to Japanese Happiness Also Lead to Japanese Unhappiness
Factors for health are different from components for happiness, and therefore it is possible to have this kind of contradiction. One of the ingredients for Japanese health is our diet, and I think we can proudly say that we have a better diet than Scandinavians. Nevertheless, some elements which are thought to influence our health and well being might have a hand in above unhappy situations. For example, the Japanese craftsmanship which was praised in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, may be causing our workaholic culture. In Japanese craftsmanship, people learn to be patient in the mundane process and to feel joy and beauty in concentrating on our work. Because we care about the quality of our work and some of us feel Ikigai in achieving perfection, which means achieving perfection gives us juice to live, we tend to work long hours.
Wa is another aspect of our culture which contributes to Japanese health and longevity that might also play a part in Japanese unhappiness. Wa means harmony: It is an attitude to create peace and harmony with others. When we hear the word itself, it sounds good and it does bring a lot of positive qualities, as well, such as our low crime rate and great teamwork, but because of this value, we are expected to cooperate with others, so when others are working long hours, it is difficult to leave work early. Such action can be regarded as disharmonious and breaking Wa.
A lot of the problems I listed above arise or continue to exist due to the fact that we are unable to bring changes in our systems. Whether it is a political system, an educational system, or a corporate system, the system doesn’t improve, if we don’t have an environment to assess the problems, discuss the solutions, and implement changes. Because of Wa, we cannot discuss matters freely since no one wants to disagree with others.
★The Elements Contributing to Japanese Unhappiness Can Play a Part in World Happiness
However, many elements in Japanese culture including Wa and craftsmanship could bring new insight to tackle the problems we face globally.
The ability to listen to others with a feeling of Wa may be able to offer a new paradigm in creating world peace since in many cultures people are conditioned to express their wants rather than listening to others’ wishes. The patience and concentration seen in Japanese craftsmanship can bring a new mindset to be happy regardless of your circumstances, which I think lacks in some countries ranked high in World Happiness Report since their systems are so advanced to the point that the citizens take them for granted.
In the age of climate change and scarcity of natural resources, we will not always be able to establish a sustainable win-win social system without some degree of frugality. The ability to feel happy regardless of your situations and to be satisfied with your lot seen in Satoyama culture where we live in harmony with the environment might play a vital role in building a sustainable future.
★By Editing Japanese Elements, They Can be Relevant to Creating World Happiness
Therefore these elements along with other factors of our health and longevity can be components of our happiness, too in the coming age. To realize it, we need to reevaluate the elements carefully to see how they can contribute to our happiness without having their negative effect. Integrating the cultures from the West with them is one way. Bringing in perspectives of young Japanese people is another way. When Japanese methods are introduced to the West, they are often based on our traditional culture and wisdom of older generations, but if we include the views of young people who have experienced the drawbacks of this wisdom, the methods will be quite different.
That is what I did in creating Zen and a Way of Sustainable Prosperity and Ikigai Diet. In Zen and a Way of Sustainable Prosperity, I incorporated a lot of the essence in new psychology and alternative cultures in the West into a philosophy based on Japanese cultures. In Ikigai Diet, I modeled the diet of young naturally conscious people in Japan, as well as bringing the famous Danish concept of hygge into it.
With Ikigai, which means to have a purpose to live, becoming a new buzzword of happiness, we have an opportunity to pay attention to Japanese values: We want to make use of this opportunity to reevaluate them so that we will be able to come up with a universal lifestyle that is truly beneficial to humanity, instead of making this trend just another fad.