As with all languages, you can learn more about the phrases and terms and how to properly apply them, if you understand how they were created and in what context. This is no different for the Japanese phrase, ikigai. In this article, we will dive deeper into context and dissect the kanji for ikigai to understand its meaning with emphasis on pronunciation, syllabication, and the different variations of the phrase. We will learn the hiragana and kanji for ikigai.
First, let’s look at how we should properly pronounce ikigai. Fortunately, unlike other Japanese words, ikigai is quite simple to spell and is one of the few words/phrases that most non-Japanese speakers pronounce relatively correctly. Although, I must say that some people have done their best to butcher it.
The proper way to do this is by looking at hiragana, the Japanese alphabet. To do that, however, it is worth understanding that the Japanese language is a phonetic one which is clearly evident in the Japanese alphabet.
Without going into too much detail on how to speak Japanese, a quick way to understand Japanese phonetics and hiragana is by associating the first five letters in the Japanese alphabet to what English speakers might refer to as vowels: a, e, i, o, u.
Please keep in mind that there is no concept of vowels in Japanese. Also note that while the English vowels are often repeated in alphabetical order, the Japanese characters have their own order as can be seen below.
- あ – In English as (a), pronounciation: [ah] as in “far”
- い – In English as (i), pronounciation: [ee] as in “bee”
- う – In English as (u), pronounciation: [oo] as in “blue”
- え – In English as (e), pronounciation: [e] as in “egg”
- お – In English as (o), pronounciation: [oh] as in “boat”
From there, it is easy for English speakers to rationalize the next five characters by adding consonants to the vowels, or should I say characters.
Note again, that the next set of characters are not a combination of two letters as in the English language, but rather they have their own character.
- か (ka) as in “car”
- き (ki) as in “key”
- く (ku) as in “cooper”
- け (ke) as in “kettle”
- こ (ko) as in “cone”
This continues with the next strings of characters to make up the hiragana alphabet, as seen below:
Japanese syllabication of ikigai
To the native English ear, it would seem like ikigai had three syllables (i-ki-gai). I assure you though that this is not the case. Continuing with our use of hiragana, we can see that ikigai has four phonetic characters or syllables (i-ki-ga-i). In other words, there is no “gai” character in Japanese, only “ga” and “i”.
The hiragana for ikigai is as such: いきがい (i-ki-ga-i). Do you see? Four characters.
Japanese pronounciation of ikigai
Listen to how pronounce ikigai correctly.
Meaning of the ikigai kanji
Looking at the Japanese kanji set, we see that the phrase is essentially made up of two parts. The first part is easier than the latter in terms of direct translation.
生き (iki), when used alone often takes on the full form 生きる (ikiru). It is a verb and means “to live; to exist.” In adjective-form, it means to be “alive” or noun-form, “life.”
The second part of the phrase, 甲斐 (kai or gai) is somewhat more open to interpretation when translating and is not without some debate among highly proficient translators.
Although a common translation of ikigai is “reason to live”, (kai) itself does not mean “reason”. The meaning of the kanji is closer to avail; effect; worth.
Clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University in Japan, Akihiro Hasegawa, dates the origin of the kanji as far back as the Heian period (794 – 1185) and asserts that the kanji is derived from “shell.”
It is important to note that during the Heian period, people considered shells to be quite valuable and sought after.
If we, therefore, agree with his assertion that the underlying nuance in the kanji includes something that is worthy and sought after, we can clearly connect the latter kanji of ikigai to the intrinsic value it has in one’s life.
This is also illustrated in other, translations of Japanese phrases that use the same kanji 甲斐, for example:
- やり甲斐 (yarigai) meaning doing something eagerly for the value it brings you, and
- 働きがい (hatarakigai) working eagerly for some benefit.
How ikigai is written in hiragana and kanji
For the kanji enthusiasts out there, it is good to know that you can write Ikigai in a few different ways.
Although there seems to be no consensus as to the best way, many authors seemingly use their poetic authority to choose between different styles. As below, we can see some use Hiragana with the kanji, some use it without. If the piece is more formal, the author may tend to favor the ikigai kanji more often than not over hiragana.
Interestingly enough, a simple Google search (at the time of this article) suggests that a more colloquial style of hiragana is preferred.
About 2,350,000 results
About 6,140,000 results
About 19,500,000 results
About 52,400,000 results
Finally, that brings us to how ikigai is translated.
Though we can safely agree that the general or most common translation of ikigai is, “purpose in life.” That translation, however true, may seem somewhat lofty. Indeed, people often mistake it for something spiritual or heavenly, when in fact the meaning is more down-to-earth.
Of course, we must recognize that one’s ikigai can be spiritual if they so choose. However, the kanji itself does not suggest that there is anything beyond what has worth or value to you.
Consider these nuances to understand the meaning and expectations of the phrase, ikigai. And rather than relying on a translation, try to trans-create it. In other words, explain what ikigai means to you. If you do, you will surely be able to convey a more accurate meaning.