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Ikigai Spotlight Series: Akiko Crowther (71), Grand Master Shodō Calligrapher 章悠

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

I never thought that Shodo would be my Ikigai...

Ikigai is a concept that is very much integral to Japanese culture and roughly translates to your 'reason for being' or 'purpose' but is not the 'Venn Diagram'. More on Ikigai's authentic definition can be explored here.

While Ikigai is essential to one's well-being, the true beauty is that it does not have a fixed equation and can change over time.

At Mogami, we have been exploring this nuance with our 'Ikigai Spotlight Series' to our newsletter subscribers; however, Akiko-san's story is so powerful that we decided to share it here on Mogami's blog.

This month's featured guest is Akiko Crowther (71), a Japanese native and Grand Master Shodō Calligrapher (Shodō artistic name: Shoyu, 雅号: 章悠), Founder of Yu Yu 悠悠書道教室, New Zealand's first Japanese calligraphy gallery & school.

*Shodō (書道) is the Japanese word for Japanese calligraphy. Shodō is a 2,000-year-old practice and one of the three traditional Japanese arts.

Tell us your story.

I was born in Tottori City, Japan, in 1951. I went to school in Tottori and graduated from Shimane University in Shimane Prefecture. I then worked as a teacher in Tottori for a year and married a Japanese man. We were blessed with two children but divorced after being married for 22 years. While visiting Hong Kong for business, I met Tim Crowther, who is British, and we remarried in 1998. We lived in Eastern Europe for 7 years for Tim's job (Creative Director of an advertising company) and moved to New Zealand in 2005 upon my husband's hope.

While I started Shodo when I was 5 years old, I began teaching it after 24 years of absence in Prague. In Prague, we ran Yu-Yu, a Japanese calligraphy school and gallery. We continued running a gallery and teaching Shodo in New Zealand until 2010. After my husband had a massive stroke in 2010, we closed the gallery. But, I started a home calligraphy class in the middle of this year, and I teach calligraphy in Nelson and Wellington.

I'm proud to say that some of my students have been awarded the Shihan (Master Calligrapher) and Jyun-Shihan (Pre-Master Calligrapher) certifications by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

We have held many exhibitions in Prague and New Zealand to introduce "Sho" (書), one of the traditional Japanese arts. In 2019, we held the "Aoime no Shodoka tachi ten" (Blue-Eyes Calligrapher Exhibition) at the Nitten Shin Kaikan in Ueno, Tokyo, where a celebrated Shodo teacher in the Shodo world was overjoyed with excitement, saying: "I've never heard of an exclusive Shodo exhibition by Westerners! How wonderful!" The students that participated in the exhibition and I were thrilled by his words.

These cultural exchange efforts expressed through Shodo have led to receiving the Ambassador's Award from the Embassy of Japan in New Zealand in 2020 and the Tottori City Special Cultural Achievement Award in 2021. I hope to live up to these awards and continue introducing Shodo to people worldwide for their pleasure and enjoyment.

When was the first time you remember coming across the concept of Ikigai?

I thought a lot about "Ikigai" in high school when pondering my career path. I wondered what I wanted to do and what kind of life I wanted to lead. I remember thinking I would like to become a teacher after reflecting on the teachers I had encountered in my life who had helped and guided me up to that point.

Western culture often sees Ikigai as something to "find" or "seek" using the Ikigai Venn Diagram. Do you think this is the right approach?

The diagram is too generic and seems to be wrong.

If you only seek what is deemed "the norm" in society and the path taken, wouldn't it be easy to give up and say that you are incapable of doing it?

I think it is important to confront and speak with your heart and try to do what you like and want to do without being bound by what is considered "the norm" in the modern day.

By doing what you love and what you want to do to the best of your ability, you will already be doing more than anyone else, and this will eventually make your life worth living, and there will surely be people who will follow and agree with you.

What your inner heart desires is always something that is inevitable and necessary.

However, if you want to do something, you have to do it with all your heart, with all your strength, and perhaps even to the extent that you think you cannot do it anymore. You really have to go all the way.

Then, you will see various aspects of yourself. From there, one by one, you may come across people who understand and support you. Little by little, your confidence will grow as you see the results of your efforts. Then, as you feel success, it can evolve to become your Ikigai.

There are only a few that know what their Ikigai is from the very beginning.

And at first, everyone tends to think: "Ikigai is not something that is in me."

However, if you have something you love to do, if you want to try it, or if you wonder how you can do it, then you have to keep on doing it through trial and error. I think you have to believe in yourself and keep on going. That is what develops into Ikigai, isn't it?

How does your life today reflect your authentic self and life priorities?

I think I am at my best and the most authentic when writing and creating Shodo, which I love so much. Although there are times when I feel so frustrated that I want to throw my brush out the window, my happiest moments are when I am immersed in the scent of "Sumi" ink and "Washi" Japanese paper.

My happiest moments are when I am immersed in the scent of “Sumi” ink and “Washi” Japanese paper.
Calligraphy piece: “Laugh, Love, Don’t give up. (笑って Waratte, 愛して Aishite, 諦めるなAkirameruna)” - by Akiko (章悠, Shoyu) in collaboration with Tim Crowther

*Shodo is read from right to left.

Can you walk us through a time in your life when you felt lost? What ideas or tools helped you overcome this period?

Whenever I feel down, I first go outside for a walk, look at the New Zealand ocean, and breathe in the great outdoors to clear my mind.

I also keep a file of phrases and sentences from books I have read that have moved me. Whenever I feel down or discouraged, I read this "cheer-me-up file" I made for myself. Opening this file and rereading this collection of words and phrases gives me the feeling, "Okay! It's going to be okay. Everything will work itself out."

What would be your advice to anyone struggling to live a life of Ikigai?

It doesn't matter what it is. The important thing is to pour your heart into something that 'you' enjoy doing.

Many successful people are often the ones who, at first, were doubted by those around them. Perhaps they were surrounded by naysayers and were told, "There is no way you can be successful doing that. What's the point?" They may also have received cold stares or discouragement from those around them. Yet, these people loved what they were doing and wanted to keep continuing, and that exact passion is what led them to success.

My life is exactly like that. My life changed 180 degrees when my now husband asked me to come and live in Eastern Europe with him. At that time, none of my family or friends could have imagined where I would be today.

While I don't think of myself as a successful person, I still managed to receive several meaningful recognitions from both Japan and New Zealand.

In the beginning, I never thought that Shodo would be my Ikigai.

I just happened to start Shodo again and continued to do it to the best of my ability. I almost gave up on Shodo many times. But through the support of many of my students, community, and of course, my husband, I was able to continue practising what I love. In the end, it became my Ikigai.

It doesn't matter what it is. The important thing is to pour your heart into something that 'you' enjoy doing. Keep doing it to the best of your ability, to the point that you feel you are putting in the most effort than anyone else in the world.

I believe that will lead you to your Ikigai.

Saori's reflection

Being curious about a Zoom background has paid off exponentially. A few weeks ago, I was on a call when I came across a piece created by Akiko & Tim. The journey continued by taking the art piece from the wall to look at the back of the art piece, finding the artist's name, and a couple of internet searches to reach Yu-Yu's homepage.

When I saw Akiko's artwork, my heart felt warm, and my body felt at peace. I had the chance to hop on a virtual video call with her, and she is just as lovely, if not more 'in-person'. Akiko-san's story is truly inspiring - her humility, passion, and love for her work and community gave me such a drive to want to continue sharing stories such as hers that reflect the true definition of Ikigai. I will 100% be making myself a "cheer-me-up" file, as I hope you all will!

Do you want to learn more?

  • Learn more about Akiko’s Shodo school based in Nelson, New Zealand, 悠悠書道教室, Yu-Yu, Japanese Calligraphy School

  • Subscribe to Mogami's Newsletter to get early access to our monthly "Ikigai Spotlight Series", where we share real-life stories of those connected with their authentic selves. You will also receive a complimentary Ikigai guide when signing up to be part of our community.

  • Mogami's Ikigai deep-dive Skillshare Course (one-month FREE access with link)

  • Learn more about Mogami's wellness framework that provides the mindset, tools, and experience to empower you with a holistic approach to one's long-term well-being here.

The reflection and journey of the other pieces guide us to a life of ikigai. Ikigai is a journey, not a destination. It is the outcome of being able to live as your authentic self in your everyday life.

What did this story bring up for you? Comment below.


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