A conversation with Japanese street culture expert Abe Masaaki
Abe-san graduated from Waseda University and joined the Hakuhodo advertising agency in 2008. After working for four years across brands and projects, he left the corporate world to experience life in Canada. Back in Tokyo, Abe-san is a freelance marketer with a particular focus on youth and street culture, the co-founder of RAW SKOOL (an NPO program that promotes children’s welfare through street culture and dance) and an active breakdancer.
In Japan, a man’s ikigai (‘purpose in life’) traditionally was defined by his work/corporation. How do you think this is changing today?
I think the situation has changed a lot. In good ways and bad, men have become less passionate. Our dads lived in a generation when men were passionate about everything -- from making money to attracting girls (laughter). I think the older generation made effort in everything they did. Men now believe in living moderately. They have a “this will do” mentality.
Why do you say that?
Everything that the older generation desired -- owning their home or an executive position in a company -- all these things are temporary objects that can disappear or be taken away. With events like the Lehman shock and Tohoku earthquake, our generation realized that.
Today’s economy is l based on abstract transactions. In recent years, the younger generation has started questioning the meaning in such transactions of “air”. They prefer living a moderate life where they get to happily eat dinner with their girlfriends and ask for nothing more.
What’s your ikigai?
Having fun. If it’s work, it has to be fun. I only want to work with people that I like. If I feel even a bit that I don’t want to do a particular job, I absolutely won’t do it. (Laughter)
What influenced you to come to that ikigai?
Maybe it was my dad? My dad worked about 30 years as a civil servant. He was the type of person that was passionate about both work and hobby. He worked to have fun and also had fun in order to work. My dad consistently valued having fun whenever he did anything. I’m sure he also enjoyed working as a civil servant, but he probably didn’t get along with his co-workers. Civil servants are usually rigid and tend to defend their social status. My family could care less about social status (laughter).
What about your peers? How are they defining their ikigai?
I think many of my co-workers from my past job have lost sight of their ikigai. At major advertising companies, employees make a good amount of money, so they just try their best to hold onto their job, wife, and home. I imagine that their ikigai is probably their kids and family. I don’t think they have a personal ikigai. At least I didn’t feel like they did when we were talking about personal passions.
Do you see men struggling with finding their ikigai?
I think there are many that are struggling. This is because those men never encountered anything that they were fully interested in and felt excited about as a child growing up. Those who had that kind of experience have passion in their life and probably were able to find their ikigai.
Ikigai is about your heart jumping and dancing.
For men, I think many men struggle to find their own taste, style and what’s cool for oneself. Most men today don’t know how to define this for themselves .
Why do you think that those men struggle to know their own likes and dislikes?
Maybe it’s because they weren’t asked as a child? I was able to freely say my likes and dislikes, but I think this was because of my dad. I remember my peers being very quiet (laughter).
A Japanese advertisement agency might be the extreme result of this. Those that are able to get a job at a major agency usually are elites that know to study hard, but only moderately participate in outside activities. They don’t have their own core of ideas that define what’s cool and stylish. They tend to only present a rehash of something that has been said is cool.
Do you think women’s ikigai is changing?
I think women overall have become more free. Some that I know live for LOHAS, some for work, and others for their family. Women are able to express and pursue more of what they want.
What do you think about the relationship between men and women? Are gender roles shifting?
I think society is in the stage of accepting the difference between men and women. Trying to forcefully come to equality is something from the past, and it’s now about tackling problems with the understanding of gender difference. I don’t think it’s about defining what masculinity or femininity should be in society any more.
It’s not about distinction. It’s about recognition.
What do you think is important for the future of Japanese society?
Kids and culture. I recently read an article that showed data on the extremely low ranking of Japan when it comes to valuing creativity and adventure amongst youths in their 20s. Culture is essential for kids to become adults with ikigai and excitement. Culture could be art or sports. It could be anything that enriches the heart. When I was a child, I was into punk rock and drawing. Now, I’m into dancing.
Having culture and ikigai will allow one to experience happiness in life, even when material things fall away.
- Article by Hideki Soejima