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The Stuff of Dreams, Fading: Ikigai and "The Japanese Self"

Author(s): Gordon Mathews

Source: Ethos, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 718-747
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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The Stufof Dreams,
Fading: Ikigai and "the

Japanese Self'


In this article I dispute the view offered in recent analyses that "the
Japanese self' is profoundly sociocentric, to argue, from a pheno-
menological perspective, thatJapanese selves must be seen as both
a part of and apart from their existing social worlds. On the basis
of intensive interviewing of adultJapanese of various ages, I depict
"theJapanese self' as culturally shaped at three levels: a deep level
of the taken-for-granted, at which selves do not comprehend their
shaping; a middle level of shikataga nai-"what can't be helped"-
at which selves comprehend but cannot easily resist their shaping;
and a shallow level of the cultural supermarket, at which selves pick
and choose who they are from a vast arrayof potential self-identities
and self-justifications. This three-tiered model enables us to con-
ceptualize the processes through which culturally shapedJapanese
selves culturally shape themselves over the lifecourse. Japanese
selves' key motivation in their shaped shaping is to be found in
ikigai, broadly defined as "that which most makes one's life seem
worth living," most often expressed as family, work, or personal
dream. Selves shape themselves and formulate and justify their
ikigai over the lifecourse so as to maintain the sense that life within
their real or imagined social worlds truly is worth living. By consid-
ering the self s cultural shaping through ikigai, we can come to a

Ethos24(4):718-747. Copyright ? 1996, American Anthropological Association.


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broad understanding of a diverse range ofJapanese selves. We may

also have a framework for understanding the shaped shapings of
selves of other contemporary societies as well.

What is "the Japanese self"? If there is one point that most
anthropologists of Japan seem to agree upon, it is that "theJapa-
nese self' is contextual and sociocentric. To take just a few exam-
ples, Takie Sugiyama Lebra has written (citing Shintaro Ryu) that
"the Japanese individual seems to feel really alive only when in a
group" (1976:27); RobertJ. Smith has written that in Japan, "the
identification of self and other is alwaysindeterminate in the sense
that there is no fixed center from which, in effect, the individual
asserts atlnoncontingent existence" (1983:81); and David W. Plath
has written that while "the American archetype ... seems more
attuned to cultivating a self that knows it is unique in the cosmos,
theJapanese archetype [seems more attuned] to a self that can feel
human in the company of others" (1980:218).
These analysts do allow for a Japanese self that is, in Smith's
words, "not entirely sociocentric" (1991); as Lebra has written, "we
know thatJapanese are as concerned about maintaining the indi-
vidual's independence and freedom as are other peoples" (1976:
156). For all their different cultural shapings, Japanese do indeed
have separate selves, as do other peoples, these scholars say; but
more recent writings call such a self into question, in stressing the
otherness of "theJapanese self' as compared to "the Western self."
Esyun Hamaguchi (1985) labels theJapanese self kanjin,aJapanese
term of his coinage meaning "the contextual," as opposed to the
Western kojin,"the individual";social scientists studyingJapan have
not understoodJapanese selves, he argues, because of their immer-
sion in "methodological individualism,"causing them to seeJapan
only through "the emics of Euro-American societies" (1985:291).
Dorinne Kondo, in the theory surrounding her ethnography of
Japanese workers (1990), writes of"seemingly incorrigible Western
assumptions about ... the boundedness and fixity of personal
identity" (1990:26). "Contemporary anthropologists," she writes,
"myselfincluded, are in the process of grappling with the difficul-
ties and paradoxes of demonstrating the cultural specificity of

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selfhood, thereby de-essentializing the category" (1990:37). Nancy

Rosenberger, in her introduction to her edited volume, Japanese
Senseof Self, criticizes Lebra, Smith, Plath, and indeed all previous
generations of Japan anthropologists, for "the ideology of the
individual which is embedded in their theories and common sense
views" (1992:4). Lebra, she writes, "seems to be searching for an
essential core of individuality that fits with Western theory" (1992:
9); Plath "presents the Japanese self as a product of relationships,
but remains within Western theory of the individual by emphasiz-
ing consistency" (1992:11); Smith too "does not escape hints of the
Western essential self with individualistic drives" (1992:10). Her
volume, she writes, presents "Japanese people who are not essen-
tialized individuals" and thereby emphasizes "the multiple and
changing positions that constitute self" (1992:13, 14).
However, these scholars' assumptions about Western selfhood-
or at least about Western theories of selfhood-seem problematic.
Spiro (1993) discusses the epistemological flaws in arguments that
"the Western conception of the self " is peculiarly individualistic in
the context of world cultures; Murray (1993) shows that "the
Western concept of the self" is more complex and variegated than
the lone, isolated straw man constructed by critics of that self.
Indeed, both Kondo and Rosenberger cite Derrida, perhaps the
leading theorist of poststructuralism, Western theory that reso-
lutely denies the essential nature of the individual. If, as they assert,
earlier anthropological theory elevated the separate, autonomous
self, assuming that self to be essential and universal (a charge I do
not believe to be valid for the anthropologists of Japan we have
discussed'), contemporary poststructuralistand postmodernist the-
ory evaporates that self. For Kondo and Rosenberger too, Western
theory may underlie their vision of "Japanese self'-Japan and its
selves being merely an "empty signifier" for the play of Western
This leads to a fundamental underlying question. Could it really
be thatJapanese lack bounded senses of personal identity, essential
cores of individuality, as these scholars say?It is indeed the case that
the Japanese language has no equivalent to the invariant English
I:Japanese personal pronoun equivalents linguistically create an
ever-shifting field between self and other (Kondo 1990:26-33;
Smith 1983:81). It is also the case that, as Lebra has discussed
(1984:294-295), and as my own research indicates (Mathews 1996:

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145), Japanese life histories tend to emphasize personal interde-

pendence more than independence, while American life histories
emphasize independence more than interdependence; this seems
to reflect a greater degree of cultural emphasis on the selfs inter-
dependence in Japan and independence in the United States
(Markus and Kitayama 1991). Japanese senses of self are indeed
culturally shaped, as the contributors to Rosenberger's volume
(1992) demonstrate;Japanese senses of self are indeed implicated
in power relations, as Kondo (1990) emphasizes. And yet I have
never met aJapanese person, and I am confident that no anthro-
pologist has ever met aJapanese person-at least outside a mental
institution or possibly a Zen monastery-who claims to have no
coherent, separate self.
Examining selves as if from an Olympian height, it may indeed
be that the sense of having a bounded, coherent self is but an
"illusion of wholeness" (Ewing 1990). It may also be true that the
mass-mediated, postmoder self discussed by so many analysts (for
example, Gergen 1991; Narita 1986) has become fragmented as
compared to selves in past ages.3 However, in the anthropological
analysisof selves,Japanese or otherwise, surely the phenomenologi-
cal experience of those selves, as selves experiencing themselves as
both a part of and apart from other selves, must be taken seriously.
Selves' experience of their lives cannot be dismissed by analystswho
claim to know those selves better than they know themselves.
In this article, I discuss how a few dozenJapanese explained their
lives and selves to me. In 1989-90 in a northern Japanese city, I
interviewed, for five-to-ten hours each, 52 people from all walks of
life about their work, family, life stories, religious beliefs, hopes,
fears, and ikigai, their sense of what makes their lives seem worth
living.4What I discovered from these interviews inevitably involves
not self but self-presentation-I have no transparent windows into
these people's minds but only their words, comprising texts (Goff-
man 1959; Watson and Watson-Franke 1985:46-50). Nonetheless,
the leap from constructed texts to other selves is necessary if other
selves are to be taken seriously in their own phenomenological
reality. This leap may entail the danger of ethnocentricity, but not
to leap is even more ethnocentric: to "de-essentialize other selves"
may be to deny our common humanity.

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What does "self mean? Melford Spiro has recently discussed "the
lack of terminological and conceptual clarity"in social scientists'
uses of the term (1993:113). Many anthropologists, he writes,
assume that cultural conceptions of self are isomorphic with actors'
own senses of themselves (1993:117, 119), and "viewthe self itself,
not only conceptions of the self, as whollyculturally constructed"
(1993:110, emphasis in original); he sees these assumptions as
unwarranted. Extrapolating from Spiro's argument, I define self as
"locus of consciousness": I maintain that selves of different cultures,
despite their different cultural moldings, may be compared as
physically separate consciousnesses experiencing the world in part
through that separation. Selves are constructed and construct
themselves through cultural conceptions; but while cultural con-
ceptions of self clearly shape subjective awareness of self, they do
not determine that awareness-selves use an array of cultural
conceptions to comprehend themselves and their experiences, but
use those conceptions with varying degrees of self-awareness and
critical distance, and manipulate those conceptions for their own
self-defining and other-defining ends.
There is no single cultural conception of self in contemporary
complex societies such asJapan, but rather an arrayof overlapping
and often contradictory conceptions that selves may use in various
combinations in constructing themselves. Recent analyses of "the
Japanese self' (Bachnik 1994; Doi 1973, 1986; various of the con-
tributors to Rosenberger's 1992 edited volume) use terms in the
Japanese language-uchi/soto, amae, omote/ura, tatemae/honne,ki,
kejime-to set forth models of "theJapanese self," but for the most
part leave aside questions of distribution and of agency. Do these
different models apply to all Japanese selves? To most selves? To
some selves more than others? To what extent do these models
presumably operate at a fully conscious level, and to what extent at
an unconscious level? To what extent do people choose these
structures, resist these structures, or unthinkingly imbibe these
structures? In an attempt to delineate more clearly someJapanese
experiences of self, allow me to offer a phenomenological theory
of the cultural shaping of self, a theory exploring how selves-in
Japan, and perhaps in other contemporary mass-mediated societies
as well-comprehend and seek to manipulate their culturalshaping.5

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There are, broadly speaking, three levels at which selves are

culturally shaped. The deepest level is the taken-for-granted level;
at this level, exemplified by language and by embodied social
practice, selves are shaped beyond their comprehension. Language
is prior to consciousness and fits consciousness within its patterns.
By the same token, the unquestioned social practices encompassed
in Bourdieu's term habitusare at this level: Selves of a given society
create that society, and society creates selves through social pro-
cesses that selves are at most only dimly aware of: "It is because
subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that
what they do has more meaning than they know" (Bourdieu 1977:
79). The aforementioned Japanese terms said to comprise "the
Japanese self' presumably operate for the most part at this level:
shaping selves who then may invoke these terms as the natural
structure of "theJapanese self."
The second, middle level of the cultural shaping of self is what I
call the shikata ga nai level. Shikata ga nai is a Japanese phrase
meaning "it can't be helped," "there's nothing that can be done
about it."This is the level of social practice and cultural norms and
expectations at which selves have considerable awareness of, al-
though little control over, how they are shaped. The pressures of
this level are experienced as external to the self: these are the
pressures of, for example, having to go to school, get married, bear
children, go to work each day, pay one's taxes, be polite to one's
boss and in-laws, and generally worry about the opinions of others,
regardless of one's own feelings about these matters. Of course,
some selves resist in various forms the pressures of shikata ga nai,
but most accede to most of these pressures, with varying degrees of
willingness or unwillingness, believing that "thisis the way the world
is," and thus the way that one must act within the world.
The third, most shallow level of cultural shaping is what I call the
cultural supermarket: this is the level at which selves actively use
culture to shape and justify their senses of themselves. At this level,
selves comprehend themselves through their various personal
choices from the array of mass-mediated ideas "in the air" of their
cultural world. Most selves choose self-definitions relatively "close
to home"-choices at this shallow level that more or less harmoni-
ously fit the moldings of the deep and middle levels-but some do
not. Indeed, choices from all over the world are available to the self
at this level, although self-definitions that radicallyconflict with the

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moldings of the deep and middle levels are chosen at considerable

risk to the self in its relation to its social world, not to mention its
own psychological well-being. At this shallow level of shaping, selves
may be thought of as cultural consumers and creators, and as
creators of self.
These levels of the self may be summed up as (1) deep shaping
taking place beyond the selfs control and comprehension; (2)
middle-level shaping taking place beyond the selfs control but
within its comprehension; and (3) shallow shaping taking place
with the selfs control and comprehension. Each of these levels
shapes the levels above it. On the basis of the deep level of cultural
shaping, selves more or less accept the middle level of shaping;
having been shaped at these two deeper levels, selves at the shallow
level culturally shape themselves. Alternately-in different spatial
arrangement-these levels may be visualized as (1) shaping from
underneath the self, setting forth the conditions for self-conscious-
ness; (2) shaping from outside the self, by the structures of the
world external to the self that the self must more or less fit; and (3)
shaping from within the self, by which the self chooses ideas from
the world by which to shape itself. My sketch of these levels is crude
but heuristically useful in understanding the cultural shapings of
the Japanese selves I interviewed.
The taken-for-granted level was implicit in the people I spoke
with in their use of theJapanese language and in the assumptions
that seemed to underlie many of their self-presentations, about
such matters as ancestor worship, gender roles, the raising of
children, 'Japaneseness," and general human relations-their so-
ciocentrism. However, the limitations of the interviewing process,
as well as the strictures of my phenomenologically based approach
(whereby I avoid as much as possible any conjecture about my
informants beyond what they themselves told me) make it difficult
to get at the taken-for-granted. The Japanese language, with its
shifting personal pronoun equivalents and levels of politeness, may
construct within its speakers a linguistic self-in-context not to be
found in, say, native speakers of English; and indeed, the personal
accounts of many of theJapanese I interviewed seemed to show a
taken-for-granted sense of self in social context found only rarely
in the accounts of their American counterparts (Mathews 1996:
210). However, the relation of language to consciousness is prob-
lematic. To what extent do the grammatical patterns of theJapa-

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nese language shape the awareness ofJapanese selves, and to what

extent are those patterns finally undetermining of that awareness?
For what it is worth, some of theJapanese I interviewed told of how
they detached themselves from the language they had to use. For
example, a construction worker told me of his boss, "I call him
shacho [company president] and speak deferentially to him, but I
don't have any respect for him at all." Similarly, some of those I
spoke with indicated that cultural concepts such as uchi/soto and
omote/ura channel their behavior but bear little relation to who
they sense they are; as several said, "Yes,I behave with others in
accordance with those ideas, but they don't relate to me."
These statements indicate that the taken-for-granted may be
consciously manipulated-and of course, as evidenced by that very
fact, is no longer taken-for-granted. Bourdieu writes of the "self-evi-
dent and natural order" created through habitus, "which goes
without saying and therefore goes unquestioned" (1977:166). The
people I interviewed often used such words as natural (shizen
na)-"It's only natural to feel oneness with the company"; "It's
natural for men to go to out and work and women to raise their
children"; "ancestor worship is natural-it's what we do as human
beings"-but if they truly felt the "naturalness"of these practices,
they never would have asserted it but would let it go without saying.
These people asserted "naturalness"in those areas that they felt to
be under challenge. Many young people do not feel much corpo-
rate loyalty inJapan today (Sengoku 1991); manyJapanese women
have careers outside the home (Iwao 1993); senses of the ancestors
may be weakening (Morioka 1984, Yanagawa 1977); and as the
people I interviewed were well aware, the "naturalness"of their
Japanese world may be very different from the "naturalness" of
their foreign interlocutor.
The level of shikata ga nai was more accessible to me in my
interviews; indeed, like the realm of social reality it signifies, it was
all but unavoidable. Some of the people I spoke with, such as the
defenders of "naturalness"quoted above, fully accepted various of
the dominant practices, norms, and expectations of their world;
but others questioned these practices, norms, and expectations,
although they mostly ended up adhering to them. As a woman in
her thirties said about pressuring her son to study, "Japan is a
society based on school credentials. Maybe that's bad, but that's the
trend of Japanese society, and we have to flow with it." As a

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sarariiman(company employee) in his thirties told me, "I guess I

don't like my work, but ... since you have to work anyway, you
might as well work hard." These two people, along with a number
of others I interviewed, did not fully want to define themselves in
terms of the popularly defined social roles of "education mother"
(kyoikumama)or "corporate warrior"(kigyosenshi),but they felt they
had little choice but to behave as if they did so define themselves.
Some of the social pressures of the shikata ga nai level are
resistible, if one is willing to pay the price. A calligrapher in his
sixties punctuated our interviews with the statement, "Jibun no
yaritai kotooyaritai. Hoka no hito wa do de mo ii. "("I want to do what
I want to do! I don't give a damn what other people think.") He
had once been a company employee but quit to pursue his ikigai
of art, despite the amazed protests of his boss and coworkers. Later,
his wife had supported him while he studied calligraphy; when she
was hospitalized for a year with kidney disease, he continued to
study, despite the protests of his relatives and friends ("Don't you
care about your wife and children? Stop being so selfish!"). He has
consistently flouted the strictures of shikata ga nai and has suffered
decades of obloquy accordingly. (His eventual success in his chosen
path has softened the voices of criticism, though I still heard some
from hisJapanese acquaintances: "Whatare you interviewing him
for? He's weird!") He was one of the few exceptions among those
I interviewed: a person largely unbound by shikata ga nai.
The level of the cultural supermarket was also ubiquitous among
those I spoke with. In Japan, as in other contemporary complex
societies, there are an extraordinary arrayof cultural ideas available
for one's personal appropriation. Confining ourselves to popular
books byJapanese authors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one
could read tracts urging the definition of self in terms of company
(Saito 1990) and family (Niwano 1969, now in its 16th printing),
or emphatically not in terms of company (Kobayashi 1989) or
family (Yoshihiro 1991), but in terms of one's individual growth;
one could read books emphasizing the definition of self in terms
of leisure and consumption (Yamazaki1987), or railing against that
definition (Hirooka 1986, Sengoku 1991); one could also read
tracts urging the definition of self in terms of the spirit world
beyond this one (Tanba 1988). Television, movies, newspapers,
and magazines contain a similar multiplicity of potential self-defi-

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nitions from both Japan and abroad, a variety of which were used
by the people I interviewed.
To give just a few examples, a sarariiman in his forties justified
his devotion to company in terms of hisJapaneseness; ifJapanese
companies can continue their success in the world, "wemay really
be able to say we're superior as a race [jinshu]."A management-
track corporate employee in her thirties justified her devotion to
her work in terms of the American feminism and French existen-
tialism she had read. An insurance company employee in his forties
found himself neither through work nor family, but through his
dream of self-realization, although he could not imagine what that
might consist of. An elderly woman conceived of herself as an
ancestor soon to be worshipped, while another, a Catholic, sought
only to be united with God. More extremely, I interviewed a dentist
in his late thirties whose office was decorated to resemble an
American Wild West saloon; he wore cowboy boots to work and had
a beard, grown, he told me, to look like that of a Western sheriff;
and I interviewed a biological man in his thirties who culturally
chose to be a woman, working as a hostess at a transvestite bar and
attending our interviews in a miniskirt. These people, and indeed
all those I interviewed, formulated and justified themselves
through their choices from the cultural supermarket.
We can see from the foregoing examples thatJapanese indeed
have separate selves, at least insofar as they explained those selves
to me in our interviews.6Self-identity seemed for these people to
be a function of all three of the levels we have discussed. On the
basis of a cultural shaping of self that is prior to self, these people
experienced themselves as fitting or resisting the structures and
strictures of the social and institutional world they found them-
selves within; and they justified, legitimated, or dreamed beyond
those selves with all the cultural materials they could bring to mind
for that task. But the question remaining from all this is, what
motivated these people in shaping themselves as they had? What
motivated them in their lives? What made them tick? To try to
answer this question, let us now consider ikigai in Japanese lives.


Ikigaiis aJapanese word defined in dictionaries in such terms as

Ikiru hariai, yorokobi,meate(something to live for; the joy and goal

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of living). (Nihongo Daijiten 1989:96); it may be broadly conceived

of as "that which most makes one's life seem worth living." Ikigai
surveys (for example, as reported by Lebra 1984:162; Mita 1984:
59-66; and Plath 1980:91) consistently show that a dominant ikigai
of men is work; the dominant ikigai of women is family and
children.7 However, there seems to be considerable ambiguity in
Japan as to what ikigai is and should be.
Ikigai is a topic of considerable interest in Japan today. Book-
stores may carry a dozen or more tracts on ikigai; during an
18-month period in 1989-90, the period of myJapanese research,
four major Japanese newspapers ran some 50 articles on ikigai.
Analyzing these articles, two reasons for the contemporary concern
over ikigai stand out. The first is Japan's aging: with Japan's life
expectancy now the longest in the world,Japanese may have several
decades to live following retirement from work or the departure
from home of children. Having thus outlived their social roles,
many old people seem to be at a loss over how to find new ikigai by
which to live. The second is Japan's affluence. Having labored
singlemindedly to rebuild Japan from ashes to economic super-
power, many Japanese now seem to question whether working
intently for one's company or family is truly sufficient to base a life
worth living on.
Underlying these reasons for Japanese concern over ikigai is a
dispute over what ikigai means. Some commentators explicitly
define ikigai as jiko jitsugen, "self-realization" (Kobayashi 1989).
Others (Niwano 1969) implicitly define ikigai as ittaikan:"sense of
oneness with'-'['or, more broadly, as'] commitment to group or
role." Advocates of ikigai as ittaikan hold that one's company or
family and children should be one's ikigai (Niwano 1969), the
source of one's fulfillment in life; advocates of ikigai asjikojitsugen
stress that merely playing the social role of employee or mother
cannot provide one with true ikigai (Kamiya 1980; Kobayashi
1989). This dispute over ikigai is finally a dispute over "theJapanese
self and how it should be defined. Should self be coterminous with
one's role in company and family?Or is there a self underlying role,
a self more fundamental than role? Is self to be located in one's
relation and commitment to one's group, or rather in the pursuit
of one's own individual dream? This,judging fromJapanese media
week after week, year after year, is the fundamental conflict over
self now being waged in Japan-a conflict curiously ignored in the

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largely static analyses ofJapanese self in terms such as uchi/soto,

amae, omote/ura, tatemae/honne, ki, and kejime, but that was
profoundly experienced by many of the people I interviewed.
There are countless examples from Japanese media pertaining
to this conflict; allow me to discuss just one, a remarkable Ror-
schach-blot-like short-short story by Kuroi (1990). A man awakens
to find a note on his wife's pillow: "Mitsuo: I can't stand this life.
I'm leaving. Yoshiko." Shocked, he stumbles into the kitchen, only
to find his wife preparing breakfast. He asks her what the note
means, and is told, "Yoshiko's left, and Mitsuo's following her,
crying and apologizing. I'm not Yoshiko, I'm wife; you're not
Mitsuo, you're husband." Baffled, he goes to work; his best friend
at the office, upon hearing his story, says, '"You're late. That hap-
pened to me five years ago." I showed this story to several dozen
Japanese friends and acquaintances, who were sharply divided in
their senses of the story's meaning. Some, often but not always
younger, railed against the couple's loss of individual self; others,
often but not always older, suggested that by losing their individual
selves and accepting their roles, this couple had finally attained
As noted above, this conflict over the nature of self was readily
apparent in the people I interviewed. Some gave the standard
opinion-poll responses to my ikigai questions, responses reflecting
ittaikan and a role definition of self. A bank employee in his forties
said, "My ikigai is my work.... I can't separate myself from the
bank-I am what I am because of it, it is what it is because of me."
A mother in her late thirties said, "Since I got married, my family
has been my ikigai. Being for my family is being for myself and
being for myself is being for my family." A few of these people
expressed no doubt throughout our interviews about their ikigai,
their merger of self and role, but others expressed hesitation. As
the woman cited above told me, after asserting that her family was
her ikigai, "I guess I sound like a very average person.... I've got
to grow as an individual!" As a sarariiman in his forties said to me
of his coworkers, "If you ask them, they may say that their work in
the company is their ikigai, but theyjust say that because they have
nothing else to say.... Maybe I'm like that too." A delivery truck
driver in his twenties said, "People working at [big companies] are
just cogs. They don't have selves." This man and a dozen or so
others of those I interviewed explicitly conceived of ikigai in terms

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of self-realization, a self-realization, however, that many saw as

being all-but-unattainable. As an insurance man in his forties told
me, "Ikigaiis a matter of living in this world with your own purpose.
That's the ideal; if I look at my own life, it's far from that ideal.
... Will I find ikigai before I die?.... I'd say that the chance I'll
find it is incredibly small."
We will shortly discuss at length the ikigai of the people I
interviewed, but let me first discuss ikigai more abstractly.It seems
clear that ikigai, whether defined as jiko jitsugen or as ittaikan, is
social. Self-realization may seem to imply self as opposed to others;
but whether one lives for one's family or one's art, one's company
or one's dream, one still is projected into a world beyond the self:
the pursuer of self-realization seeks a self that will be more highly
valued by others, by one's social world. Ikigai as ittaikan-generally
company or family-tends to entail the selfs commitment to some-
thing in its existing social world. Ikigai as jiko jitsugen-generally
personal dream, sometimes creative endeavor or religious belief
(although this is ambiguous)-may entail the selfs commitment
to an imagined social world, one that might come to pass in the
future but that has not come to pass at present.
It also seems clear that ikigai is individual. All commentators on
ikigai in the Japanese books I have read, whatever conception of
ikigai they advocate, stress this individuality: selves may be urged
or cajoled by company, by family, or bybooks like theirs, to conceive
of and pursue ikigai in certain ways and down certain paths, but
this finally can only be the selfs own choice, not made for the self
but by the self, these writers say. Both ikigai as ittaikan and ikigai
as jiko jitsugen, as expressed by the people I interviewed, are
matters of the selfs individual choice of deepest commitment to
something in its real or imagined social world.
Many of the people I interviewed seemed somewhat confused
about the meaning of the term ikigai, reflecting the confusion in
Japanese mass media over the term: the conflict between ittaikan
and jiko jitsugen. However, ikigai defined simply as "that which
most makes one's life seem worth living" was sensed by everyone I
interviewed; all acknowledged something from the social world
around them-family, work, creative activities, religious belief, love
affairs, or the dream of having a mission in life (or for a few people
a balance of several of these)-that made their lives seem worth
living. IfJapanese selves were only individualistic, then they would

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not feel such ikigai; but if Japanese selves were only sociocentric,
then these selves would "naturally"find their ikigai in the primary
group and role to which they belong, rather than pursuing, reject-
ing, or agonizing over ikigai, as they so very clearly do. The term
ikigai is a testament to the fact that the selfs commitment to its
existing social world inJapan is not automatic, but must be earned.
In terms of the cultural shaping of self, shaping at the deepest
level in Japan seems to be directed in part toward "natural"com-
mitment to one's primary group, but this shaping does not always
seem to stick. Thomas Rohlen has discussed how the family is the
model of social ordering in Japan. Japanese mothers, he writes
(citing William Caudill), are "inclined to view the child as born
asocial with the implied goal of child-rearing to be teaching the
child to integrate with others, to become social" (1989:18). Sub-
sequent Japanese institutions, such as schools and work groups,
continue this emphasis but may be greeted with skepticism and
resistance, since "among adults attachment is rarely as certain or
as complete as it is between parents and children" (1989:31). The
molding of the child within the family is at the deepest level of
cultural molding, since, among other things, selves come to self-
consciousness as children only after having been in large part
already molded. Subsequent molding, particularly molding of the
self to feel one with the company-such as, for example, the
corporate marathon described by Rohlen (1974) and the "ethics
retreat" described by Kondo (1990)-attempts to replicate or rein-
force this earlier familial molding but has varying degrees of
success. If this later molding is successful, then selves will feel ikigai
for their company or other large social group;8if it is not successful,
then selves may feel ikigai elsewhere in their lives and view their
relation to their companies as a matter of shikata ga nai.
Ikigai as family and children seems less inherently problematic
than ikigai of work in that it involves the actual replication of the
family in a later generation rather than its metaphorical replica-
tion. As we will shortly discuss, the women I interviewed generally
seemed more comfortable with the idea of family as ikigai than did
men with work as ikigai. However, the conflict between ittaikan and
jikojitsugen crossed gender lines. Most of the women and many of
the men I interviewed in the prime of life seemed to find their ikigai
in family and in company, respectively;yet, as noted earlier, many
of these people had doubt as to the ikigai they held, expressing,

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however hesitantly and vaguely, a longing for a different ikigai, a

different world. The reason for this seems to lie, as we will now
discuss, in the conflict between the self s different levels of cultural
shaping in Japan, as expressed in the shifting pursuits of ikigai of
the people I interviewed over the lifecourse.9


I interviewedJapanese between the ages of 21 and 78 (assuming,

as do mostJapanese commentators, that ikigai is a commitment of
adulthood). Ikigai among those in their twenties sometimes in-
volved the pursuit of present pleasures. As one young "office lady"
told me, "Myikigai is travel. When I travel, I can get dressed up,
and go to fancy restaurants and eat good food; I can go shopping,
and can take pictures of myself in nice clothes." For most, however,
it involved not present pleasures but dreams of what the self may
become in the future. Sometimes these dreams were entirely within
the conventional pattern of men living for their future success in
work and women for the marriage and family they hoped to have.
As a young sarariiman said, "Yes,I'd like to become kacho[section
chief] and have a good life with my family; if I have a dream, that's
it"; as a young, recently divorced woman said to me, "If all my
dreams came true, I'd be married, have children, have an ordinary
family life-just an ordinary [heibonna] life. That's all I want."
Often, however, these dreams were not so conventional: the
young government worker who dreamed not of marrying the man
of her dreams-"If I find a man I like, maybe I'll get married, but
I certainly don't dream about having a family"-but of writing a
novel; the young bank employee who dreamed not of becoming
an executive at his bank, but rather a rock-and-roll promoter: "I
don't even want to think about the possibility that I might be here
until I retire." These people had taken no steps to act out their
dreams, but one young man I interviewed, a college graduate in his
late twenties, had burned his bridges behind him. He had quit his
leisure-consuming white-collar job to drive a delivery truck while
studying to pass the exam to get into medical school and become
a doctor. "Maybepeople think my dreams are impossible to realize,
but I think they're quite possible. Some of my friends seem envious
because I still have a dream, but my mother and other older people
say, 'What kind of crazy things are you thinking! Get serious!'" In

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fact, the odds of his passing the examination to enter medical

school through his study in his free time were so long as to be
nonexistent (particularly in light of his recent marriage); but he
dreamed on.
At the deepest level of cultural shaping, these young people may
have been more or less shaped toward commitment to primary
group-women living for family and men for company. However,
most of those in their twenties I interviewed seemed to see these
present or future commitments to family or company as tinged with
shikata ga nai: the selves they feel they probably will become, as
against all the glamorous possibilities from the cultural supermar-
ket as to the selves they might conceivably become. I have men-
tioned the multiplicity of cultural ideas in Japan as to what the self
may become: one sees in the mass media frequent tales of celebri-
ties, adventurers, criminals, saints; company men having extramari-
tal affairs, or quitting their work to become Buddhist monks or
science-fiction writers or racing-car drivers; their wives becoming
business executives, or fashion designers, or poets, or international
interpreters, or servants of the poor with Mother Teresa. Social
norms and expectations are, however, far more limiting: men are
to marryand work to support their families; women are to work for
a few years, then marry, bear children, and nurture their families.
The twenties are a time at which the cultural realm of dreams
clashes with the social realm of norms and expectations-a time at
which all the wonderful choices from the cultural supermarket
clash with the constraining realm of shikata ga nai in all its power.
Ikigai for those in their thirties, forties, and fifties tended most
often to fit this standard mold of company and family. A few people
I interviewed denied that they had ever had any dreams apart from
their current ikigai, but most discussed such dreams as dreams
foregone. Sometimes this was said with a sense of relative content-
ment. A mother in her late thirties said, "If I were twenty again, I
might not marry-maybe I'd become a female executive!-but
then, maybe if I worked for a company all my life, I'd wish I had a
family. I think I took the best path." This woman also practiced
modern dance and had wondered if she should devote herself
wholly to dance; but recently her teacher had been hospitalized for
stress:"Looking at her, I feel awfully lucky to have a family .... The
only thing she has is dance." For others this passage of dreams was
expressed with real regret. A sarariiman in his late thirties reflected

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on the career he had not followed: "IfI'd taken the path of politics,
I might have been a city assemblyman now. Then I'd have been
able to say that the purpose of my life is to make this city a better
place to live in. I can't say that now.... I didn't choose this
company because I really wanted to work here. I chose it because
it was the best of the companies that happened to be hiring, and I
happened to pass the exam." A rock musician turned construction
worker in his mid-thirties found his present ikigai in his family, he
said (as did several of the blue-collar workers I interviewed),'? but
his dream of music remained: "I like myself because I'm working
hard for my family, but I dislike myself because I gave up music....
I'm not a bad father, I think-I'm supporting my family-but
maybe it would be better for my kids if I showed them a father who's
pursuing his dream."
As I pointed out above, family as ikigai tended to breed less
ambivalence than work. One reason for this seemed to be that
women experienced more flexibility than men in their entrance
into the realm of work and family as what they are to live for. The
white-collar men I interviewed almost uniformly entered their
companies in their late teens or early to mid-twenties, at latest.
Women, on the other hand, tended to have married in their late
twenties, following years of work (which they were not expected to
make their ikigai); they sometimes did not have children until years
after that. Their gradual assumption of family as ikigai was often
seen as negotiable. One woman I interviewed, a mother of three in
her late thirties, had put off having children for a year, during
which she went (with her husband's reluctant agreement) to the
United States to study English, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I talked
to no man who was able to negotiate the ikigai of work, as this
woman had negotiated her ikigai of family. As she told me, "Now
my children are my ikigai; but I might not feel this way if I hadn't
had the chance to go to America to study."11
This is one reason for the lesser ambivalence felt by women than
by men toward their ikigai of family and company; but a more
fundamental reason is to be found in the very nature of these ikigai.
A mother in her thirties explained this as follows: "Some men
realize that in their work they'rejust a cog [haguruma]in a machine,
but others don't; they believe that they're essential, that without
them the company couldn't survive. These men are being fooled.
But family is different. It's not like a company: you can't simply

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exchange one mother for another; a member of a family is notjust

a replaceable cog." This woman (reflecting Rohlen's view of the
parent-child bond as the fundamental relation that institutions in
Japan try but often fail to replicate) is saying that men's commit-
ment to their companies may involve false consciousness; only
women's commitment to their families is genuine. Her words are
indirectly corroborated by those of the most work-committedJapa-
nese sarariiman I interviewed, a man in his late forties: "Do I feel
like a cog in the corporate machine? Well, of course I'm a cog-the
bank is a big organization; what I'm doing could be done by others
just as well as by me-but while I'm working, I believe that without
me the bank couldn't survive .... You've got to believe that." Many
Japanese company workers I interviewed made similar comments,
indicating that their work did not involve what they saw as their
individual selves, but rather made use of them as replaceable cogs:
as another sarariiman told me, "Even you could replace me at my
work within a month."1
It is revealing, however, that the older company employees I
interviewed feared not the loss of their individual selves-which,
perhaps in line with Kuroi's short story, they had already given
up-but the loss of role that comes with retirement. The work-com-
mitted sarariiman cited above said, "Mywife always tells me that
those who don't have a hobby tend to go senile after they retire. I
think I still have enough time to find some kind of hobby before
then, but I have to prepare myself." He must find a self apart from
work, he felt, or else he might lose all that remains of himself. The
Japanese mothers I interviewed similarly felt doubts primarily in
terms of the time-boundedness of the role that they played. A
mother of thirty with three small children said, "Fornow my kids
are my ikigai, but that's not enough.... If all you do is raise your
kids, then you'll have nothing left when they grow up." A woman
in her forties with two children in secondary school said, "Until
they leave home, I live for my children. But after they grow up they
shouldn't be my ikigai anymore; I shouldn't interfere in their lives."
These women's remarks show that their worry was not that their
true selves were not expressed in their role as mother, but that that
role would eventually end. Both of these women had had difficul-
ties in their marriages, but this seems not to have affected their
primary sense of living for their children. Many youngerJapanese
women do not share this sense; the Japanese birthrate has been

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dropping over the last two decades and is now just 1.45 children
per woman in her lifetime (Japan Times1994). Yet both Japanese
media and my own interviews seemed to reveal women's general
satisfaction with their ikigai of children, a satisfaction often not
shared by white-collar men who may be viewed by women and to
some degree by society at large as objects not of envy but of pity for
their corporate enslavement (Iwao 1993; Takayama 1990).
If the people I interviewed in their twenties expressed a conflict
between the realm of cultural potentialities and the strictures of
social pressure, people in their thirties, forties, and early fifties
often expressed a merging of these realms. Generally, the cultural
supermarket became, as they aged, the source not of conflict with
their shikata ga nai roles, but ofjustification for those roles as those
roles became, progressively, not an infringement on self but the
very stuff of self. For some this shift was expressed straightforwardly,
as in the above examples of people saying, in effect, "Igave up my
dreams for the sake of work/family, but this path is after all the best
path for me to take"-as if work and especially family were suffi-
ciently powerful ideals of self as to require no culturaljustification.
For others, however, these ideals seemed to require extrinsic justi-
fication. The female management-track corporate employee I
interviewed justified her work in terms of her feminist ideals-"I
work incredibly hard because I represent what women can do if
they're given the chance"-but also through her readings of phi-
losophy: "I work, really, for the sake of 'intellectual exercise.' It's
not easy to study something that's a little beyond you, but once you
master it, it builds your character.... Before you die, you have the
chance to be conscious of your death, you want to feel that your
life has been lived well. When I die, that moment when I recognize
my own existence is all I'll have."She had read extensively in French
existentialism and seemed to use ideas gleaned from her reading
to justify having to devote herself to her work, which, she told me,
she fundamentally detested. A male company employee used an
ideal of masculinity to justify his life of work: "I've never said 'no'
to any of myjob assignments.... I sacrificed my family a lot for my
work. I like men who do that: manly man [otokorashiiotoko],like
Western cowboys." Another older sarariiman justified his long
hours of work in terms of his generation and theirJapaneseness:
"People of my generation ... felt we could endure anything think-

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ing of those who died in the war-and in that spirit, we rebuilt

Japan, maybe from a sense of guilt for those who died in the war."
These people's justifications were deeply felt; still, their words
seemed to justify that about which they sensed they had little
choice. Of course, some of the people I interviewed in the prime
of life did feel that they had had a choice and acted upon that
choice. Many of the women who lived for their children expressed
this sense, unlike most of their male counterparts. Beyond this
there were a number of men and women who chose to withhold
their deepest commitment to work or family and make that com-
mitment elsewhere. A man in his forties I interviewed, a former
hippie who now ran his own real estate office, found his ikigai not
through his work or through his wife and children, he told me, but
through his casual affairs with women he met in bars, through
which he claimed he could recapture the freedom of his youth.
This man's ikigai resistance to shikata ga nai was furtive; others'
resistance was more obvious. I interviewed an unmarried teacher
of traditional dance in her early fifties whose mother died in
childbirth; dance is her ikigai, she told me, because in traditional
dance she can appreciate and venerate the mother and family that
she never knew in reality. I also interviewed several adherents to
new religions such as Mahikari and Soka Gakkai, who steadfastly
maintained that their religion was more important to them than
work (although not necessarily family) could ever be; they said that
they made no effort to hide their "strange" ikigai from their
coworkers. Most unequivocal as a rejection of the standard ikigai
was the Buddhist nun who quit her office job to have her head
shaved, don an orange robe, and seek salvation for herself and her
society: "Sometimes when I ride the trolley, the young office ladies
point and laugh at me to their friends. That makes me really sad."
There was also the transvestite, drawing the astonished stares of the
people around him as he walked the streets in his miniskirt and his
broad shoulders and conspicuous Adam's apple. These people,
however, were the conspicuous minority. Most people I interviewed
in their thirties, forties, and fifties more or less fit the standard roles
of employee and mother, the standard ikigai of work and fam-
ily-having given up their dreams, they remade themselves to fit
their roled realities.
In their late fifties and sixties, however, their roles too began to
pass, a terrifying prospect for many. A sarariiman soon to retire

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struggled to prepare himself: "I'll feel lonely when I retire; I have

to learn to endure being separate from an organization, to face
myself. I've got to learn to accept the fact that I won't have myjob,
my purpose in life, anymore." He was an avid fisherman and had
for many years chafed at the restrictions placed upon his life by the
several companies he had worked for-"I've been working for the
past thirty years for society rather than for myself, but now I'm sick
and tired of living that way!"-but by this time in his life, his
corporate life has become virtually all his life; when he is ejected
from that world, will he find any self left to return to? "Ihave to kill
myself in the organization.... I've sacrificed myself for the com-
pany, but the company trusts me and relies on me." Somewhat
similarly, a divorced women in her fifties, who managed a tiny bar
to support her teenage son, burst into tearswhen she discussed with
me her future: "In five or six years, my son will leave me; he's
everything to me. I'd be really happy if my son became inde-
pendent, and had a happy life.... It'd be ideal if I could live with
my son and his family. But I feel so scared.... I've been working
hard for my son, but... I don't know if he feels any obligation for
me. Probably he doesn't." An unsympathetic woman in her late
twenties spoke of her parents as follows: "Myparents fight a lot these
days. When we were small they were too busy with work and raising
children to fight ... Myfather lived for his work, but that's winding
down. My mother lived for raising her children-that was the most
fulfilling time of her life, it seems; she always talks about when we
were small. Now my parents fight because they have too much free
Most of the elderly men and women I interviewed had managed,
eventually, to come to terms with the loss or diminishment of their
earlier ikigai of work or family, company or children. A woman in
her late sixties was estranged from her son-in-lawand daughter; she
loved her daughter from afar and busied herself by diligently
picking up the trash in the park next to her bare apartment each
morning, part of her present ikigai of "justliving," she said. A man
in his late sixties sustained himself through memories of past
eminence-"I once ran a factory with two hundred and fifty people
under me"-and the few hours of part-time work each week that
he continued to perform, his ikigai, he said. He lived with his wife
and daughter and her family, but his dreams of family seemed to
lie elsewhere. At the close of our final interview, he said: "There's

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one thing I haven't told you. There was a woman I loved. It was
during the war, and I couldn't say that I loved her-I wrote her a
letter once or twice. But she later married someone else; she died
of tuberculosis a few years after that. I still keep her photograph in
my desk drawer. I look at it sometimes late at night."
Some old people I interviewed were able to continue fully pur-
suing their ikigai of their earlier years. The aforementioned callig-
rapher sought to continue his calligraphy until he dies: "If I had a
year to live, maybe I'd drink a little sake,but I'd do a lot of shodo
[calligraphy]! The other day I thought about what I'd do if I had
cancer-all that came to mind was shodo." His wife, although
bedridden and on dialysis,vowed to live on: "Ican't die, leaving my
husband and my daughter and grandchild behind-not yet, any-
way."These people's ikigai may indeed sustain itself until they die;
but for most, their ikigai remained a shadow of their former
years-having shed dream for role, the loss of role may leave only
memories.13Having made the shikata ga nai level from outside the
self the very stuff of self, justified at the level of the cultural
supermarket, and perhaps sensed as "natural"at the taken-for-
granted level, many of the elderly Japanese men and women I
interviewed found themselves back at the shikata ga nai level:
forced by the ways of the world to surrender their roled selves, and
having no other selves left to which to return. At the close of their
perceptive essay on old people inJapan, Misawaand Minami write,
"Young people live for their future; middle-aged people are ex-
pected to live for their work or families. But old people have no
such burden. Freed from their social obligations, they can live as
they themselves desire" (1989:231). But, of course, to do so, they
must have selves left; and as Misawa and Minami's essay describes,
many old people plug away at their hobbies each day merely as a
way of killing time (1989:210), having killed themselves.14

What does the foregoing analysis teach us about "the Japanese
self'? I have discussed how at a certain point in Japanese history
(1989-90) young people tended to live for their dreams, middle-
aged people for their roles, and old people for their roles' remnants
or their memories. Because my analysis is confined to a single point
in the lives of people of all ages, I cannot saywith any certainty how

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much the shifts in self we have seen are due to lifecourse-to one's
changing sense of who one is as one ages-and how much to
history: to changing senses of self in Japan, perhaps leading young
people today to have different senses of self than young people of,
say, 40 years ago. Both factors clearly are at work, and Japanese
commentators debate their relative weight.15
However, although there are certainly many more varied models
of self available from the cultural supermarket in Japan at present
than 40 years ago, most of the older people I interviewed indicated
that in their youths they too had held dreams that had been
supplanted by the roles of their middle years, which in turn had
become attenuated in their later years. "TheJapanese self,"it seems
apparent, is not static but shifts in its sense of itself and of what it
lives for over the lifecourse. This shift is clearly notjust a matter of
the Japanese selfs sociocentrism, as if that self were a chameleon
blending without resistance into its surroundings; rather, it is due
to the self s often agonizing construction and deconstruction of its
sense of commitment and thus identity over the lifecourse, before
the passage of dreams and the strictures of reality. Ikigai is the
Japanese selfs sense of what it lives for vis-a-visits own dreams and
the pressures of others and the institutional coercions and encour-
agements of society at large. The shifts and constancies of ikigai
over the lifecourse may be viewed as heroic, tragic, banal, or
pathetic, but they are not mindless: they reflect selves' efforts to be
selves as a part of and apart from others in a world in which they
dream but which they cannot control.
The broad shifts in ikigai over the Japanese lifecourse may be
viewed as the processes through which the powers that be inJapan
first manufacture and later discard Japanese selves. Japanese soci-
ety, requiring workers and mothers for its ongoing production and
reproduction, has devised a highly efficient system for the making
of acquiescent selves, professing their deepest allegiance to its ends:
the Meiji Era's Imperial Rescript on Education, with its claim of
nation as family (Smith 1983:9-36) has its clear echoes inJapanese
postwar claims of company as family (Kondo 1990:119-225). But it
may also be that the very success of this system is what has led to its
being challenged: Japanese affluence has led to the plethora of
media images of alternative lives that people now have the financial
means actively to pursue if they so desire;Japanese life expectancy,
now the longest in the world, gives Japanese selves decades of

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potentially vital life once their social roles have ended. In terms of
the levels of cultural molding of self, it may be that, generally
speaking, the taken-for-granted level grows smaller, as the options
available on the cultural supermarket level are perceived as ever
more varied and ever more available. The taken-for-granted level
then becomes the shikata ga nai level, through which self is con-
strained by forces it sees as being external to itself, and thus
potentially resistable. How much shikata ga nai comes to be re-
sisted-whether dreams of self will become lived selves for millions
at some future point in Japan, or whether dreams will serve largely
to make tolerable the ongoing strictures of shikata ga nai reality-is
perhaps the pivotal cultural question facing Japanese selves and
society today and into the future.
The processes of the selfs cultural shaping over the lifecourse
that I have described have implications beyond Japan; while the
content of what I have discussed is particularlyJapanese, the larger
processes are perhaps not. The selfs pursuit of a life that seems
worth living through the shaped shapings of culture may be global
in today's world; it also may be global that selves' dreams of youth,
fueled by the possibilities of the cultural supermarket, are whittled
down by the shikata ga nai imperatives of the society one lives in
and the structural place one has come to occupy within that society
(see Caughey 1984 for discussion of American youths' mass-medi-
ated impossible dreams; see Brim 1992 and Levinson et al. 1978 for
discussion of American, mostly male dreams and their fadings over
the lifecourse). Walter Mitty reveries are inflated, then deflated,
then with luck all but forgotten by one's old age, when dreams have
gone past. Japanese society, in the rigidity of its social norms, the
strength of shikata ga nai-and in the ongoing rebellion of some
selves against those norms-may make this process particularly
apparent; but it is true here as well as there, for me and perhaps
for you as well as for them.

GORDON MATHEWSis assistant professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of

Hong Kong.

Acknowledgments.The research upon which this paper is based was conducted through a
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship, 1989-90. Ideas for this
paper were formulated while holding a postdoctoral fellowship at the Reischauer Institute
ofJapanese Studies, HarvardUniversity, 1993-94. I am grateful to these institutions for their

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support. I am also grateful to Yoko Miyakawafor reading and commenting on this manu-
script. A much-abridged version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the
Association for Asian Studies, Washington, DC, April 9, 1995.
1. Lebra, Smith, and Plath are not, in my reading, guilty of placing an essentialized
Western self upon theJapanese of whom they write. Ifanything, they are guilty of postulating
an essentialized Japanese self. Who is "the Japanese individual" to whom Lebra refers? Is
there a single "Japanesearchetype" of selfand maturity,as Plath indicates? I see a multiplicity
of individuals, a number of competing archetypes.
2. It is interesting that Kondo and Rosenberger, apparently influenced by poststructural-
ism and postmodernism, offer arguments about the otherness of the Japanese self that
parallel those ofJapanese advocates of Nihonjinronsuch as Hamaguchi, as well as Aida (1972).
Nihonjinron, as discussed by Yoshino (1992), is a conservative discourse of cultural nation-
alism, describing the uniqueness of the Japanese; postmodernism in American anthropol-
ogy, as depicted by Kuper (1994), paints itself as politically radical. The two movements thus
make strange bedfellows.
3. It is, however, worth keeping in mind Hannerz's words (1992:35): "When it is claimed
... that identities become nothing but assemblages from whatever imagery is for the moment
marketed through the media, then I wonder what kind of people the commentators on
postmodernism know; I myself know hardly anybody of whom this would seem true."
4. I chose the people I interviewed-friends of friends and acquaintances of acquain-
tances-largely for their diversity. I suspect that some of the company employees and
mothers I spoke with are more representative of contemporaryJapan than are the Buddhist
nun and the transvestite; but I do not finally know what a "typical"Japanese person might
be like,just as I do not know what a "typical"American might be like. Whenever I interviewed
someone presented to me as "typical,"I invariably found key aspects of their lives to be
uniquely personal, shared by no one else I spoke with. At the same time, however,Japanese
readers of this manuscript have told me that most of the people portrayed therein are
recognizable to them asJapanese types, parallelingJapanese that they themselves know.
5. My phenomenological approach is steeped in the writings of Berger and Luckmann
(1966), Thomas Luckmann (1967), Alfred Schutz ([1940] 1978), and Schutz and Luckmann
(1973). My formulation of the self's cultural shaping is, however, my own.
6. It is possible that the Japanese I interviewed "made up" selves in response to my
questions-their sociocentric sensitivity leading them to present to me nonsociocentric
selves. When I suggested this possibility to several of those I interviewed, they reacted with
considerable indignation; but just as I cannot prove that the world of other people at large
is not a figment of my imagination, so too I cannot prove thatJapanese people have, "like
us," independent as well as interdependent selves.
7. This ikigai division reflects the stereotypical familial division of labor in Japan-one
recent surveyshowed that 71 percent ofJapanese women agreed that "husbands should work
outside the home and wives should mind the family" (cited in Amaki 1989:179). Many men
say that their ikigai is family rather than work and company, as the surveys cited by Mita
(1984:59-66) and Plath (1980:91) indicate (see also Minami 1989:129). However, judging
from my interviews, by this they tend to mean that they work hard to support their families,
rather than that they seek to devote more of themselves to their families rather than to their
8. Books such as Kawakitaet al.'s Ikigaino soshikiron(An organizational theory of ikigai)
(1970) and Noda's Ikigai shearingu:sangyo kozo tenkankino kinrOishiki (Ikigai sharing: the
attitudes of workers in a time of industrial transition) (1988) discuss managerial strategies
through which to win the worker's ikigai for the company.
9. In this article I give only brief glimpses of how dozens ofJapanese people I interviewed
formulated their ikigai. For comprehensive personal accounts of nine Japanese and nine
Americans describing what makes their lives seem worth living, see Mathews 1996.

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10. One reason why the blue-collarJapanese workers I interviewed found ikigai in family
more than did white-collar workers may be time: unlike most of the white-collar workers I
interviewed, many of the blue-collar workers tended to be at home with their families rather
than off on company-related activities in the evenings. Several woman told me that their
white-collar husbands were like geshukunin-boarders-so little were they at home.
11. Americans to whom I describe this woman often say, "Whata waste! She never used
what she learned." But this women had never intended to be a professional at English, but
only to fulfill her youthful dream before assuming her primary role of mother. American
women with whom I have spoken sometimes seem to assume that gender equality means
above all equality in the workplace, and thatJapanese women are oppressed because they
lack that equality. However, with a few exceptions, the Japanese women I interviewed did
not feel this way; as several mothers of school-age children said to me, in their own words,
"Whywould I ever want to have to work as hard as my husband has to?"
12. If these men were wholly sociocentric-if their ikigai was felt solely in terms ofittaikan
toward their companies-then their sense of being corporate cogs would not be perturbing
to them, in that the essence of themselves would be their membership in their companies
rather than their individual work in their companies. Of all the workers I interviewed, only
one, the work-committed sarariiman cited in the text, seemed able to feel this way.
13. Men who must retire may often experience the loss of role more completely than
women, for whom the role as mother may be attenuated in old age, but never altogether
shed. Beyond this, the elderly men and women I interviewed who lived in three-generational
families often seemed able to live by a newly roled self-that of grandparent-more easily
than those who lived alone.
14. Surveys show that many old people say that their hobbies are their ikigai, but the
Japanese books on ikigai that I have read, whether defining ikigai as jiko jitsugen or as
ittaikan, consistently denigrate or deny the validity of hobby as ikigai. Only a very few old
people I interviewed claimed to find ikigai in the pursuit of a hobby.
15. Sakurai (1985) and Sengoku (1991) maintain that Japanese young people are
fundamentally different from their predecessors in earlier generations; and indeed, most
people I interviewed overage 50 bemoaned the youngergeneration as being utterlydifferent
from their elders. On the other hand, Minami (1989) convincingly argues that stages in
lifecourse, not history, are the primary factor shaping attitudinal changes between genera-


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