By Obadiah Mailafia
One of my favourites of all the countries I have visited is Japan. Tokyo is a sprawling city of 13.8 million. And yet, you can walk through its leafy boulevards without having to constantly watch your back. It is a clean, safe and orderly place.
I was once invited to dinner at the home of a senior diplomat in Tokyo. Over a sumptuous meal, the couple explained to me that their only son, a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science,has absolutely no interest in living abroad. Not very untypical of his generation. No country offers them the comfort, security and the good life that Japan does. Japan is one of the most advanced technological nations in the world. When the trains are three minutes late, it makes headlines. The Japanese diet is one of the healthiest in the world, comprising mostly of fish, lentils and fruits.
Japan has a population of 125 million people, with a gross per capita income of $5.4 trillion,coming just behind USA and China. It has a per capita income of $43,000. With limited natural resources and a land ever so prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, they have built a life some of us can only dream of.
For centuries, they were a closed society, ruled by a feudal Samurai warrior shogunate. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 set the country on the path to industrialisation and national transformation. What is remarkable about the Japanese is that they pursued the path of industrialisation without necessarily succumbing to the paradigm of Westernisation. They became a prosperous nation while preserving the essence of their culture and civilisation. Many Japanese are dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu and the Shinto religion. Many are also Buddhists.
The remarkable transformation of Japan after the devastation of World War II is one of the key developments of the 20th century. Every schoolchild knows about the nuclear bombs that were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by the Americans on the orders of President Harriman Truman. An estimated 195,000 perished, in addition to thousands of wounded, including succeeding generations of children born with deformities as a genetic consequence of the nuclear fallout.
Despite this tragedy, the Japanese made a remarkable come-back. They have faced their former enemies without any bitterness. It is one of the few countries to have outlawed war in their constitution, thanks to General MacArthur who became the country’s constitutional lawgiver.
Japan today has an average life-expectancy of 84.79 years, easily one of the highest in the world. Indeed, there are more 100-year-olds on the island of Okinawa than anywhere else in the world. The Japanese enjoy one of the highest standards of living among the advanced industrial nations, with a Human Development Index, HDI, of 0.919 (with 1.0 being the perfect score).
The Japanese are known for their legendary work ethic. Despite the supernal prowess of China in recent years, Tokyo still maintains an edge over Beijing in terms of the quality of its products. Legend has it that the Japanese used to produce rather shoddy products, until MIT professor Edward Demming introduced to them the concept of Total Quality Management, TQM. They took to it with panache, more so that it resonated with their own traditional philosophy of Kaizen (continuous improvement).
Japan is by no means a perfect society. For one thing, it is a rapidly ageing society. The average age is 48.4, compared to Nigeria’s 18.1 years. Within the coming decades Japan is likely to experience labour shortages and pension challenges as a result of these unfavourable demographics.
Japan also faces other social problems. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with about 14.9 percent per 100,000 persons. The country went through what has been termed “the lost decade” in the 1990s following a stock market bubble that was sooner destined to obey the law of gravity. They had to battle with deflation, slow growth and a rising national debt, which currently stands at $13.6 trillion — a staggering 257 percent of GDP.
Despite these challenges, Japan is a prosperous democracy; a cohesive and stable nation with a highly productive and innovative knowledge economy.
The major philosophy underpinning Japanese flourishing is known as “Ikagai” — literally meaning a “reason for being”. It refers to having a meaning for being — a direction and life-purpose. Four fundamental components of life are embedded in the Ikigai philosophy: passion, vocation, profession and mission.
Remarkably, this philosophy emerged in Okinawa, an island that was the epicentre of the war between the United States and Japan. Okinawa lost more than 200,000 people. Out of that immense tragedy they evolved a philosophy that gave them renewed hope for the future. In a manner of speaking, they had found their ikigai. Out of the cauldron of war and suffering, they have built a sense of community anchored on kindness, purpose and living in the moment. It is no surprise therefore that the Okinawans have such a zest for living. Living to be a hundred is now the norm in Okinawa; aided by a good climate, excellent food, social harmony and peace.
The Japanese believe that every human being has an ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-guy), a “path to life fulfilment”. The ikigai philosophy is not a quick-fix happiness pill that you can swallow. The Japanese are not a particularly happy people either. But scientific research has shown that a combination of a balanced diet, exercise and life-mission focus have been at the heart of Japanese longevity and flourishing.
The German-American psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, 1992), confessed that, as an inmate of a German concentration camp, he found that those who perished were mostly those who lost the will-to-live. He confessed that whenever he himself was about to give up, he imagined all the great scientific works that he wanted to produce and the future that lay ahead. You could say that, in Japanese parlance, he had found his ikigai.
The foundation of Ikigai lies in answering the key questions: What gets you up in the morning? What puts you in your best element? During what activities do you experience flow? What do you find easy to do? What did you like doing as a kid?
The essence of finding your ikigai is when what you love and are good at meets what you can be valued and paid for because it is needed by the world. Once you are able to identify these key elements about yourself, you should resolve to follow your own compass.
Ikigai does not promise the elixir to eternal happiness. It is not a magic lantern to making billions of dollars. It is merely a key that opens the door to the resplendent mansion of hope, self-actualisaion and personal fulfilment. A life of purpose undoubtedly contributes to the prospects of a long and happy life.
In a time of great stress in our country, I recommend this philosophy for people who face anxiety and fear in our lawless and nihilistic country. Companies, government and other organisations can build the ikigai philosophy into their corporate culture by making the workspace a happier experience. It has been proven that workers would much prefer working in a happy organisation with lesser pay than in an unhappy organisation that pays more.
We face dark times.Rumours of war everywhere. Hunger and anger stare us in the face. The easiest temptation is despair and give up. Many young people are trying desperately to flee to Canada or the United States.
Our skies are overcast with bad omens. As the immortal Chirstopher Okigbo put it: “And the secret thing in its heaving threatens with iron mask/The last lighted torch of the century”.
I solemnly prophesy that, after the storm, a rainbow will appear. Therefore, keep going, no matter what. Discover your own ikigai. Keep walking. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Find your life-purpose and pursue it. Dream big.
Follow your vocation and star. For the bloodthirsty demons that currently stalk our land with arrogant swagger will sooner or later eat the dust of their own wickedness.
The dawn of a New Nigeria beckons!