There is No Japanese Word for Retirement


woman watering plants

There is, in fact, no word in Japanese that means retire in the sense of “leaving the workforce for good” as in English. This is one of the fascinating differences between our cultures that bears some investigating. That’s the purpose of the book that Hector García, and Francesc Miralles wrote called  Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.

It’s pronounced EE-kee-guy.  In Japanese, ikigai is written as 生 き 甲 斐, combining 生 き, which means “life,” with 甲 斐, which means “to be worthwhile.” Along with a healthy diet and strong social connections, having a reason to get up every day and finding something purposeful to occupy you may be the key to living longer and living better.

Every day, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65, and they’re leaving work as soon as they can. You may have noticed in your local news a flurry of retirements from nonprofit, government, and cultural organizations (I have where I live.) The global pandemic has changed the way we do business and seems to be changing the face of business as well.

In fact, I left a 23-year career in April this year to focus on my writing. I had been planning the move for years, but the coronavirus lockdown meant that the usual activities one looks forward to in retirement – travel, more time with family, more socializing with friends – weren’t options. I had planned carefully for my ikigai, but I’m not sure everyone who leaves work is prepared to fill the hours of a day with productive and meaningful activity.

If you went a little crazy during lockdown, this post is for you. You had a taste of figuring out how to stay active, busy, and happy on your own without the structure and stress of your usual work schedule. Use that knowledge to start planning for the rest of your life after you leave work behind. Here are some lessons I have learned.

First, figure out what your natural body cycles are. I’ve always been a morning person, but my 5:00 AM wakeup felt like an unpleasant jolt to my system. I practiced waking up naturally, and it turns out that 6:00 AM feels right. I start my day with a 2.5 mile walk, and in Florida’s summer heat, 6:30 AM is the best time for that. The sun is just coming up (but there’s enough light to walk safely), there’s almost no traffic or noise, and the birds are beginning their day with song. My morning walk, followed by a light breakfast, is a great start for me.

Starting your day right might begin with journaling, meditation, or reading something inspirational. You might take the time to organize your thoughts or plan your day. Whatever the opposite is of crashing to the floor and starting your day with a 20-pound load of stress (and caffeine.)

I’ve found that the daily activities that make our home clean, pleasant and orderly are easier when they’re done in short spurts on a regular schedule. I have a plan to clean one space a day (it can be as small as a drawer, or as big as a room, depending on my energy level.) The plan includes decluttering; I commit to recycling, tossing, or donating 5 items a day, even if it’s throwing out expired canned goods or old cosmetics. Every small item counts as progress.

I love gardening, so my plan includes an hour of gardening at least three times a week. I’ve divided my yard into zones: back beds, front beds, back patio plants, and herb gardens. I work for an hour or cover one zone and call it a day. Because I do the work continuously, there’s no urgency to get too much done. Like cleaning, if you do some work every day, it never piles up into an overwhelming task.

As a bonus, gardening is considered moderate exercise. If you’re counting steps (and counting the number of times you bend, kneel, pull and lift), you’ll recognize yard work as a real workout – with beautiful results to show for it.

Your ikigai doesn’t need to be a grand plan to change the world. Small but meaningful commitments that make your home, family, or health better will give you purpose and meaning after full time work.

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