The Japanese Contentments: A Look at Wabi-Sabi and Ikigai

Although Western intellectuals have been narrowing ideas from Japanese culture for a long time, it has become en vogue lately for self-help and New Age gurus to promote different aspects of Japanese philosophy.

And why shouldn’t they?

As an island nation, which developed in isolation for many centuries, Japan has developed its own unique philosophies that the world can benefit from.

Author Erin Niimi Longhurst who’s 2018 book, “The Japanese Contentments,” gives a great overview of Japanese philosophy.

“Japan has acquired such a strong, distinct, and rich identity because it lacked external influence for so long,” she writes. “For over 220 years, Japan had an isolationist foreign policy, known as Sakoku, meaning that it was a ‘closed country.’”

Some of the ideas that developed were ikigai (what we do), wabi-sabi (the beauty of change), and kintsugi (celebrating the hardships that shape us).

These ideas can be very useful to anyone. For example, as introduced above, ikigai is your purpose. According to Longhurst, it is “the thing that drives you and makes you get out of bed in the morning.” During this time of social distancing and a global pandemic, it may be difficult to find one’s purpose. Likewise, wabi-sabi is about “accepting the nature of impermanence and transience and embracing the presence of chaos in life.”

The dual ideas of ikigai and wabi-sabi can help us realize our purpose as well as helping us to accept change. With regard to the latter, a new year has just begun, and it can be an opportunity to apply wabi-sabi to our lives. According to Longhurst, wabi-sabi can include the following:

  • Asymmetry, not conformity or evenness
  • Slow, not fast
  • Rustic, not polished
  • Small moments, not grand gestures
  • Minimal, not ostentatious

Like many foreign ideas, wabi-sabi does not directly translate into a simple English word but instead captures larger ideas, ideas that are listed above. And as the author points out, an idea like wabi-sabi can be applied in the home, in objects, in time, and even in aging.

It’s a concept that has great significance.

As does ikigai.

Ikigai is that thing in our lives that provides a delicious richness,” writes Longhurst. “There is a fire within us all; it may burn brighter in some than in others, and it may waver, but it can also return stronger, hotter, and more powerful than ever, and it takes different things to stoke the flames for each of us.”

To conclude, ikigai and wabi-sabi can help us realize our purpose as well as helping us to accept change. These ideas – with their origins in Japan – can be extremely helpful, particularly during this time of uncertainly and change.


Longhurst, E. N. (2018). The Japanese Contentments. Chronicle Books, LLC. San Francisco, CA.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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