Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life – Ichiro Sato

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Ichiro Sato provides a very interesting, insightful, and concise primer on the concepts of “Ikigai” and “Kaizen” and also articulates how everyone of us can exploit these concepts in our daily lives to attain a great degree of fulfilment and calm. Deriving inspiration from his nonagenarian grandparents who imbued Ikigai every day of their lives, Sato urges his readers to follow the example set by the couple. Professor John Creighton Campbell of Tokyo University and the University of Michigan once famously proclaimed that Japanese were the healthiest segment of the world population. This concept was reinforced by a famous study conducted by the researcher from National Geographic, Dan Buettner. In a study on centenarians, termed “The Blue Zones“, Buettner found out that a holistic living amongst people in the region of Okinawa in Japan made them one of the rarest group of centenarians on Earth. A combination of Ikigai and Kaizen aided the Okinawans greatly in extending their health and elongating their life.

Sato informs his readers that the word “Ikigai” is the confluence of two words “Iki” which means “to live” and “gai” or “kai” which denotes “reason for being alive.” Ikigai is basically the reason why we get out of bed each morning. It defines the sense of our very purpose and existence. Ikigai can range from the prosaic to the uncomplicated. Enjoying watching the sunrise, taking the dog out for a walk, or even composing a poem even though no one reads them can suffuse a sense of Ikigai in a person. Sato states that this sense of Ikigai can be further bolstered by a combination of physical and mental exercises to be practiced on a regular basis. For example, Sato urges his readers to follow the simple Japanese principle of “Hara Hachi Bu”, a phrase which in its extreme simplicity just means “stop eating when you feel eighty percent full.” In order to regularise the habit of Hara Hachi Bu one can make conscious changes to one’s dietary habits. Eating slowly, reducing the size of serving plates and glasses, and concentrating on eating alone without allowing concentration to hover on and around electronic gadgets and tools are some of the practices that one can imbibe.

A proper practice of Ikigai is rooted in its five essential and elemental pillars, namely: small beginning; releasing oneself; sustainability and harmony; seeking joy in little things; and being in the present moment. A classic example of living in the present moment, seeking joy in little things and releasing oneself is epitomised by one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs and the oldest three Michelin-star chef, the ninety three year old Jiro Ono. This master considers Sushi as his Ikigai. In fact his one desire is to shed his mortal coils while preparing Sushi.

Sato proposes that the technique of Ikigai be bolstered by sustained and constant physical activities. Lest one be misled, physical activity does not mean subjecting oneself to a bruising regimen in the gym and coming out with six pack abdomens and bazooka biceps. The physical activities proposed by Sato are in fact mild, moderate, and hardly taxing, with the exception of certain vigorous forms of Yoga perhaps.  Since the quintessential objective of physical exercises is to invest movement in and to the body on a sustained basis, exercises such as Yoga, Tai Chi, Radio Taiso (a set of exercises that derives its title after a series of instructions received in Japan via radio during the Second World War), Qigong (exercises to regulate and control the art of breathing), are all invaluable as one goes about the concept of Ikigai.

The second part of Sato’s book deals with the concept of Kaizen. Developed by Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management consultant and organisational theorist, the term Kaizen is a confluence of two words, ‘Kai’ (change) and ‘Zen’ (good). Hence in its literal sense, Kaizen represents a ‘change for the better.’  Every student of management and an intrepid consumer of management literature would be quick to associate the concept of Kaizen with the “Toyota Way“.  By weeding out waste in the production process, the automobile giant revolutionised the manufacturing industry. Cocking a snook at the concept of ‘breakthrough innovation’, Kaizen brought about changes in an incremental, simple but steady fashion in a patient and persevering manner. Kaizen was eliminating ‘Muda’ (waste), ‘Mura’ (unevenness) and ‘Muri’ (overburden).

Similar to the Toyota Way, Sato insists that we can also imbibe the tenets and principles of Kaizen in our daily life. A continuous, unbroken, and uncompromising improvement of just 1 percent every passing day would ultimately ensure that we fulfil our goals and realise our dreams so long as they are reasonable and rational. One can also pay attention to the concept of the ‘5S’ approach devised by Hiroyuki Hirano. The 5S concept comprises of: Seiri: Meaning ‘sorting’, it stands for removal of all unnecessary items; Seiton: Systematic Arrangement that facilitates most effective and efficient recovery; Seiso: Shining or cleanliness. Items, equipment, and workstations to be kept tidy and neat at all times; Seitketsu: There needs to be ushered in a standardization in both workplaces and practices, and Shitsuke: Sustainability. Once the preceding 4S’s have been implemented that practice ought to be transformed into a self-sustaining habit and there ought to be no looking back.

Sato’s book induces a definite element of curiosity and interest in the reader to assimilate more about the concepts of Ikigai and Kaizen. I personally was more attracted to the section dealing with the former than the latter. While the Kaizen concepts, even after their extrapolation to the individual, still somehow retained an ‘industrial’ hue and ‘manufacturing’ colour, the principles pertaining to Ikigai piqued more than just an element of academic interest and general curiosity. All of eighty eight pages, “Ikigai and Kaizen: The Art of a Fulfilled Life” is a very absorbing and assimilating read that facilitates the opening of many promising portals that would lead to the inculcation of habits that are long lasting, ideal, healthy, holistic and perfectly desirable.

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