The Old Man Who Sits at the Bar: Issue 2

Nigel Oakins

25 Mar 2022

Nigel Oakins muses on the word 'ikigai' and other terms

[This story originally appeared in Koktail Magazine issue 2.]


What’s in a word? This magazine chose ikigai as its theme for this issue. Iki for life and gai for being, often translated as “a sense of purpose in life” or, if you prefer, a reason to get up and out of bed in the morning. A well-meaning soul (or more likely a self-help guru looking for the next big money-making thing) created a Venn diagram that purports to completely unravel the true meaning of this simple yet deep-meaning Japanese word. Quartering the word into four components: “passion”, “vocation”, “profession” and “mission”; and standing (apparently) for “what you love”, “what you are good at”, “what you can be paid for” and “what the world needs”.  If you can complete this diagram you too can find your personal ikigai. 

If only it were so simple.

Try and see where it gets you. For me, that would be flamenco music, backgammon, part-time writer and better meat-free steaks, which when Venn overlapped gives a reason to stay in bed rather than get up. 

If, like me, you are a native English speaker who has lived in Thailand for the better part of thirty years, then ikigai sounds like a sticky egg. But it does have a ring to it and it is a truly ingenious little word that is hard to replicate in other languages. The French word métier is almost there, but you have to be pretty good at something for it to be your calling. I love the Greek word opa—so simple but a celebration of something well done or satisfying. Can’t you just feel yourself smashing that expensive plate on the floor and shouting opa in smug satisfaction? The Greeks also have eudaimonia or “in good spirits”, but somehow this does not roll off the tongue quite like opa.

Another favourite of mine is “apricity” which simply deserves to mean the warmth of the sun in winter. Add another Japanese word, komorebi, which delightfully reflects sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree. Throw in “deciduous” which we are going to need later, and for good comparative measure, add rakuyou, a Japanese word for golden fallen or shedded leaves. Let’s go French again with retrouvailles or “the happiness of meeting again after a long time”. Mix in rimjihn, Sanskrit for the pitter-patter of a light drizzle, and for good measure petrichor, Greek for the pleasant smell of the earth after a light rain. And why not morii, Norwegian for a desire to capture a fleeting moment.

Who could argue that “brontide” should not signify the low rumble of distant thunder and that “elysian” should not mean divinely inspired? Are we not all flaneurs sauntering aimlessly about observing our surroundings? Or simply cosagach, Scottish Gaelic for a feeling of being sheltered and warm in front of a wood-burning stove. Not forgetting a little Norwegian with utepils or sitting outside enjoying a beer on a sunny day. Add a little Thai with santisuk for “tranquillity”, and to finish, gigil, Filipino for “the overwhelming desire to squeeze something that is utterly adorable and irresistibly cute”. 

What a grab bag of wonderful words. If you wonder how some may fit into a sentence or two then how about this: “The apricity of the winter sun and the deciduous trees reflecting the komorebi gave a feeling of cosagach just perfect for an utepils and that morii moment. The brontide did not trouble us nor the pre-storm rimjihn as we sought cosagach. Were we not simply flaneurs enjoying retrouvailles as we shared a gigil as the santisuk overcame us? Opa.” 

Perhaps not. But if you ever meet Stephen Fry, the actor and renowned British wit and intellectual, you could try this out on him, or indeed any pompous friend for that matter, and see if they flinch.

And finally back to ikigai. I have it on good authority from a Japanese scholar and a friend of mine that ikigai is not something you need to make money from, does not have to be something the world needs, is not something you need to be proficient at and is not something you even have to love. Now that’s good news if your ikigai is anything like mine.