Origami cranes symbolizing life

Japanese folktale: Sayuri’s second chance at life

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The Japanese believe that you, me, and everyone has an ikigai, or rather, a purpose in life. Unfortunately, it is not easy to find or always recognizable even when it is right before you. This happened to be the case for the fabled woman who, while on her deathbed, was given a second chance at life.

Here is an adaptation of her story.

The life of Sayuri

Born into a very traditional and religious Japanese family, Sayuri lived a quiet, yet pleasant life. Her mother was kind and caring, providing balance to her father’s strict hand. He was a Shinto priest with a very particular view on how she should present herself.

Knowing this, the thought of defying her father or going beyond the bounds of what was expected of her would have been too much, both for him and her family to bear. To that end, Sayuri never disobeyed him. Indeed, she was always eager to make him proud by growing into his idea of a perfect woman, as was expected. Ironically, she felt comfortably constrained her whole life.

At a very young age, Sayuri married her childhood sweetheart, a fine man who later in his career became the mayor of the small town in which they lived. Together they had three wonderful children who Sayuri loved more than life itself. 

Life was not difficult for Sayuri and her family. They were well-off because of her husband’s success. However, she had often felt the need to suppressed herself from showing any affluence publicly. She believed it was improper to do so because her husband’s role in the community had demanded it, or so he had said. Indeed, it was what he expected of Sayuri, and she had humbly agreed. Perhaps it was because she loved her husband as much or maybe it had much more to do with her humble upbringing. Either way, Sayuri camouflaged her lifestyle.

After some time when her children grew a little older, Sayuri decided that she wanted to give back to the community by becoming an elementary school teacher. She discussed the idea with her husband, and though there was some apprehension at first, he finally allowed it.

However, when discussing the possibility with the principal of the school she learned that he was less than eager to support her. Apparently, she was too old to start a career. The school was not in a position to accept the mayor’s wife. She would cast an unfavorable light on the institution, he objected. And so, Sayuri felt an uneasy sense of pressure and even started to doubt herself. 

With that, Sayuri realized she couldn’t go through with it. Eager to please her husband and children, her father, and the community, she decided to remain who she was, making a conscious effort to live a frictionless lifestyle. Sayuri continued living “properly” and believed that she was doing the right thing.

As life would have it, just after a year Sayuri lay on the bed motionless not knowing her husband and children prayed over her. She was not very old when she had fallen ill into a deep sleep, one of which the doctors were not very hopeful. It was only a matter of time.

Japanese countryside rice fields
Image by かねのり 三浦

Sayuri’s deep sleep

As she fell deeper into sleep, Sayuri traveled an eternity passing above the mountains, across the rivers and through the night skies of her country towards a light full of hundreds of thousands of familiar faces which she could not entirely make out. She was not scared and felt a massive wave of love and acceptance crash over her when she landed at that heavenly place. The voices of her ancestors called out to her in unison, welcoming her to their home.

Feeling at ease and eager to join them she moved forward. To her surprise, however, the figures took a step back and raised their hands, motioning her to stop. When she did, the voices asked a simple question in unison, “Who are you?”

Surprised by the question, Sayuri proudly replied by saying she was the loving wife of Yamamoto the prominent mayor of a small town just outside Osaka. For this, she was respected by the community.

The voices responded by saying that they did not ask whose wife she was or by whom she was respected. Then, they repeated the question, “Who are you?”

Somewhat perplexed, Sayuri changed her answer and proudly proclaimed she was the mother of three wonderful children. Surely they will grow to be fine young adults with great ambitions.

The voices responded again by pointing out that they did not ask her whose mother she was or the ambitions of her children. Again, they repeated their question, “Who are you?”

Not sure what answer to give, Sayuri stood upright and proclaimed that she was the daughter of a Shinto priest and practiced daily. Surely, this would be the answer they were looking for.

Unrelenting, the voices responded in a similar fashion as before, explaining that they did not ask whose daughter she was or to which religion she belonged.

The conversation entered a pause that continued for a time-stretched beyond infinity. Pushed to her limit, Sayuri finally collapsed to her knees and cried with uncertainty. She was lost as she could not satisfy them with an answer to their question.

Giving up, she looked down at her hands and whispered without much fanfare and relented, “I am just Sayuri. Each morning I wake early to care for my husband and children. Without missing a day, I pray for my parents that they are resting peacefully. I miss my family and love them all so dearly.”

“And do you love yourself?”

Sayuri never hearing such a question before, paused with tears in her eyes. After a moment she replied, “Yes.”

“Then why do you hide behind them?”

Understanding the question, she immediately felt insignificant. Sayuri realized that there was no questioning her love for her family, but her whole life had been lived in their shadows. She was merely a representation of what she thought others had seen in her. It was just an illusion. She had no answer.

Delighted, the voices asked her to stand, “Go back and live your second chance at life,” they said.

Sayuri’s second chance at life

Sayuri woke from her long sleep with a new outlook. Not much had changed on the outside, but she no longer saw her life through the eyes of others. She finally understood who she was and what she was meant to do. 

From then on Sayuri was more passionate about living a purposeful life than ever. She was still the wife of the mayor and continued to raise her three wonderful children However she was now more committed and determined to live her own life. She went back to the principal and with confidence became the most valued teacher the school had ever had.

Sayuri had died once before, and her determination to live the rest of her days happily meant that she never wasted her second chance at life. She had found her ikigai …though it had always been before her.


Don’t wait for a second chance at life

The story has an unfortunate parallel to reality, not limited to folklore or fictional characters. All too often we hear similar stories from the people around us who don’t recognize their ikigai until they experience that “second chance at life.”

Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.
Benjamin Franklin

Don’t wait for a wake-up call. You may not be as fortunate as Sayuri to get one.

Before you know it, life will have passed you by and regret will have set in. Surely you will begin to think of all the things that could have been, had you only tried.

You are as young as you are now than you will ever be. Your whole life, however long, is ahead of you to grow and live purposefully. A meaningful life of happiness and longevity awaits you. You owe it to yourself to follow your ikigai.

We welcome your comments and would love to know your ikigai!

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