Wisdom from the Japanese Obachans
Your "Ikigai" are those "moments when you can open your wings without feeling guilty about enjoying life." Over the winter holidays, I went on an onsen hot springs trip in Ureshino, Saga, Japan, with an exceptional group of Obachans. Obachan is a Japanese term often used as an affectionate way to address a female elder.
With Japanese women having one of the highest average life expectancies in the world, I wanted to share their words of wisdom in this special edition of Mogami's Ikigai Spotlight Series to kickoff 2023 on the right foot. According to 2020 data from the World Bank Group, Japanese women's average life expectancy is 87.74 years, a number close to 5 years and 7.5 years higher than the UK and US, respectively. Let me first introduce you to the three lovely Obachans.
From left to right: Tsuneko Obachan (85), Minami Obachan (76), and Hidemi Obachan (73).
They are the two daughters and daughter-in-law of my father's au pair. My father's au pair passed when he was in his 20s, but he holds much gratitude for her as she guided him with love and kindness to believe in himself. On this holiday occasion, my father invited the Obachans to join us in Saga, Japan, for an onsen trip to show his gratitude to their family over the years. It was a rejuvenating weekend full of laughs, the hot springs, traditional Japanese food, and karaoke duets.
Picking them up at the train station, I am welcomed with three beaming smiles lighting up from under their masks, personal backpacks and a refusal to let me hold their bags. Heading to our car, I switch to walking at my New Yorker pace to keep up with them as they debrief me on the friendliness of the train staff.
Ikigai should make you feel free.
When I asked Minami Obachan what her Ikigai was, her first response was...
I asked Minami Obachan whether the apparel store she had opened and run for many decades was her Ikigai.
"Oh no, no. My apparel store definitely kept me busy, but I wouldn't say that is my Ikigai."
Minami Obachan ran an apparel store every day for many years, and while it was a store where you could buy clothes, it also became a community spot. Customers could shop and enjoy conversations about the neighbourhood, family, work, etc. She worked tirelessly, day and night, weekdays and weekends, year after year, and had to miss close relatives' funerals as she had to open her shop. Minami Obachan enjoyed her work, was good at it and wanted to be there for her customers, who she knew relied on her shop.
It was around that time that her husband got sick.
Minami Obachan decided to close her shop to make time to take care of him. Putting a 500 yen sticker on every item in the store, she sold everything in a week.
While she was ready for this next chapter with her husband, they were unfortunately not gifted with much more time. He passed away a few months later.
After taking the necessary time to grieve, she pondered what her life should look like next. While some urged her to reopen her apparel store, she knew she wouldn't go down that path anymore.
"I finally felt free. I remember seeing a bird fly by during my walk, and I could feel the breeze as if I was that bird. I worked hard for many years and didn't regret those years in the shop, but I knew I was in a new season to start living for myself. Not a selfish type of season, but a season of 'joy'.
To find those 'moments' that really matter.
Moments when I am chatting with my sisters, taking dance classes, or relaxing at the hot springs onsen with you today. "
Minami Obachan showing us a photo on her flipphone
Minami Obachan reminded me that your Ikigai should make your heart feel full. In her words, "You can't take money, your possessions, or work titles to the afterlife, but maybe you can take some good memories. I'd rather fill my life with moments of joy with my loved ones than fill my wallet with pieces of paper, wouldn't you?" Ikigai is a collection of everyday moments. A theme I observed during my weekend with the 3 Obachans was how often they would say, "we are so grateful for this moment". When we ate handmade soba noodles for lunch in a restaurant in the mountains, when we ate a traditional kaiseki meal at the ryokan, when we sang karaoke after dinner, and after we relaxed in the onsen hot springs, they always ended with a moment of gratitude.
It may seem insignificant, but the 3 Obachans reminded me that Ikigai does not have to be a specific role or purpose but a collection of moments. After spending time in the outside hot springs after dinner, Tsuneko Obachan, with her gentle and soft voice, said to me, "what an Ikigai to watch the moon while soaking in the hot springs onsen and have nothing in my mind". Tsuneko Obachan's wisdom reminds us that Ikigai is about having courage. Courage to take a hard, honest look at our everyday lives and see whether we have those moments that make our life feel worth living for. You may find the harsh truth that you are not living a life that aligns with what you want, which is challenging to admit. The reward, however, is the opportunity to shift our mindset to create a life where we feel these Ikigai moments.
Ikigai can be plural.
As I was dropping off the 3 Obachans at the train station, they all gave me a long handshake. A handshake with both hands, going up and down many times and bowing our heads as we say farewell. Asking me to leave before they start crying, I hear Hidemi Obachan, "What an Ikigai to be able to spend this weekend trip together". Giving a last bow as they walked away, I heard flashes of Hidemi Obachan's voice throughout our weekend. "Singing out loud is an Ikigai." "Seeing your father as an adult and giving back to society as a doctor is an Ikigai." "Learning to enjoy my own company now that my children have grown up is an Ikigai". Yes, we can have many Ikigais. A simple but essential truth. While the often referenced Ikigai Venn Diagram, an interpretation by Marc Winn, Way-Finder and Coffee-shaman, seems to suggest one Ikigai, Hidemi Obachan's wisdom shows us that you can have many. You can have many Ikigais throughout your life, and you can have many Ikigais at the same time. This fact may make some feel Ikigai is less valuable, but I argue the opposite. This fact makes Ikigai more powerful, reminding us that we are not one-dimensional. As humans, we are multi-dimensional, with professional and private lives, personal and community needs, and evolving life stages. Rather than trying to deduce your Ikigai with a Venn Diagram, why not try a more expansive exercise of self-reflection? Start your Ikigai(s) self-awareness journey
Dan Buettner's TED talk highlights the fact that Ikigai is a factor that contributes to longevity in Japan. Let's take this winter holiday that just passed as an opportunity to reflect on your Ikigai(s)— what top 3 memorable moments did you feel free of distractions and completely present? Perhaps these are moments of pure joy, calm, alone, with your community, a creative endeavour, or in nature. What comes up for you? How difficult is it to come up with three? Doing this exercise is a way to start the self-awareness process, the first step to living an authentic life of Ikigai(s).
Saori's reflection: As I sit in my home office in London, reflecting on my trip, I am overcome with a strange feeling. A warmth in my heart and a sense that I have known these lovely Obachans my whole life. Even though this was only the second time I had met them. These lovely Obachans are kind, warm, and strong. They have a strength that extends beyond the physical and is more about that inner strength that gives you a sense of grounding. I tried the self-awareness exercise I mentioned and came up with the below - curious to see how they seem to be the small moments of everyday joy. What were yours? I would love to hear them. 1. Having my breath taken away from the beauty of the Hokkaido mountains while skiing. 2. Being grateful as my partner made his special breakfast recipe for my mom and sister. 3. Feeling the stillness of nature & architecture combined at the golden temple in Kyoto.
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.