Shinto fox representing general prosperity, worldly success and ikigai

Relationship between Ikigai and Shintoism

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The pursuit of life’s ultimate purpose has been a topic of contemplation for centuries across various cultures, religions, and philosophical traditions. Is the ultimate goal of life to achieve happiness through living a virtuous life? Or, is it to attain knowledge and understanding of the ultimate reality of the universe? Here, we explore the relationship between ikigai and Shintoism for understanding.

Looking both inwardly and outwardly, civilizations have spent an immeasurable amount of time seeking answers to the great enigmas, “Why are we here? What is our purpose?” and “Is there a grand plan in place, or is our existence a mere happenstance?” 

Only through an examination of life itself, the afterlife, or perhaps both can these be resolved. Needless to say, it continues to be an important topic exploration in today’s world.

Regarding the purpose or meaning of one’s existence, it is common to feel a sense of metaphysical significance. It is therefore not surprising that the Japanese concept of ikigai is often viewed through a religious interpretation, especially by western standards. 

Although it is possible for ikigai to possess a spiritual dimension, especially if one’s life purpose aligns with their religious convictions or spiritual outlook, there is no mention or reference to ikigai in any religious text, whether Eastern or Western. 

We can conclude, however, that relationship between ikigai and Shintoism is a spiritual path. Shintoism may have influenced the concept of ikigai.

Shinto foxes representing general prosperity, worldly success and ikigai
Image by Nagara Oyodo

Shintoism and Ikigai

Shintoism, known as the “Way of the Gods,” is thought to have originated in the 8th century, although archaeological texts suggest an earlier date. In contrast to the world’s three largest religions, no single doctrine explicitly outlines or defines Shintoism. Rather, a few ancient historical writings exist that expound certain beliefs and mythologies of the time.

Despite the scarcity of textual evidence, Shinto beliefs have persisted throughout the ages and have become deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. While there are some commonly observed rituals associated with life events, there is no single method or way of practicing Shintoism. Instead, each individual defines their own spirituality, endowing it with a unique quality. 

Unlike other religions where dogma often dictates the relationship between the divine and the manner in which one’s actions in the present determine their status in the afterlife, Shinto spirituality centers on the present, the world around us, and the life we are living. It is widely regarded as promoting harmony and purity throughout one’s existence.

Shintoism's reverence for nature

Upon closely examining Japanese culture, one can discern such principles permeating all aspects of society, especially in the deep reverence for nature. In Shintoism, it is believed that eight million kami, or gods, reside in every natural element, including not only animals and plants, but also trees, rocks, rivers, wind, sounds, and the four seasons. This abundance of spirits is considered a metaphor for life and explains why nature and its purity are celebrated through cultural expressions and art forms. 

An excellent illustration of this is the fervor displayed during the cherry blossom season or the exquisitely designed gardens that are emblematic of Japan. These unique qualities and cultural elements serve to underscore the parallels between ikigai and the Shintoistic worldview.

Shinto temple in nature representing ikigai
Image by Kazuo Ota

Being mindful

Shinto beliefs further emphasize the present moment, focusing on the life one is living. Mindfulness and personal awareness of one’s true nature are believed to enable inner peace filled with compassion for all living things, as each has its own purpose. Our individual purpose is linked to our innate desire to contribute to a meaningful way of living for all of us. 

Being mindful in ways that recognize what we are doing, where we are, and what surrounds us, helps us to appreciate the small things in life. It also draws attention to the fact that change is always possible, as nothing is fixed or permanent. Understanding this allows us to feel grateful for the present state, whether it is positive, negative, or neutral.

Shintoism can be your ikigai

Noriyuki Nakanishi, from the Department of Public Health at Osaka University Medical School, addressed the connection between ikigai and spiritual beings in his 1999 letter from Japan titled “Ikigai in Older Japanese People. He stated that the desires associated with ikigai are not simply equal to the desires for biological satisfaction or the desires of humans as social creatures, but rather they are individual desires of humans as spiritual beings.

Spiritual devotion itself can be a form of ikigai since it fills one’s life with significance and value. Although ikigai is not specifically mentioned in Shinto texts, it is advocated through its teachings. There is no ikigai rule or guide that says an individual should not belong to a specific religion, nor that religion needs to be absent from one’s life. 

What distinguishes ikigai from being solely religious is whether religion is central to one’s purpose. Whatever one’s goals may be, if one aspires to live a purposeful life, then they have ikigai.

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