Book Review: The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi

Book Review: The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi


The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi is a short read that summarizes the Japanese concept of Ikigai, offering a wide range of examples from Japan's society both modern and ancient.

In this article, we'll understand the concepts behind this philosophy and review Ken Mogi's written attempt at condensing it into an easy-to-read text. 

What Is Ikigai?

After reading this book, it became clear to me: defining Ikigai is a bit like trying to catch smoke with your hands. The term itself is used in different contexts within the Japanese culture. We'll try nonetheless.

Ikigai is all about achieving a happier, more fulfilled life. Like Stoicism, it's about attaining tranquility over material wealth — acknowledging that success may come from pursuing one's passion. After all, when work feels like play to you, you have an invaluable advantage over everyone else.

In short, it is your reason to live, and it's been linked to longer and happier lives by academic papers such as this study of well-being in older Japanese adults.

Crucially, Ikigai is accessible to anyone, and it can reside in small everyday rituals, like sipping a cup of green tea or breathing fresh air in the morning. It exists in the pleasure of doing things the right way, whether big or small, even when no one is looking, a concept far removed from our society's addiction to external validation. Ikigai brings us closer to a healthier and more sustainable inner sense of intrinsic motivation.

Ikigai in the West

The Western, American dream that has infected Western society has also brought us further away from Ikigai. A Chinese proverb reads:

You can't smell roses from a galloping horse.

In many countries, the schooling system funnels people into a profession, sits them on a metaphorical galloping horse (while continuously re-enforcing that they must be at least as good as everyone else, who is already running twice as fast as they are), and hands them a far-away dream of retirement. Once retired, they are told to expect relaxing afternoons on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean, but the sad truth is that many people experience a deterioration of their cognitive function, boredom, and a lack of purpose.

The popularity of short-form content and social media can ruin lots of experiences that may bring people purpose in life.

Let's take a trivial example: woodworking. Thanks to the power of the internet, you can now watch hundreds of sped-up videos on woodworking on your phone, and within a few hours, you have seen everything that would have taken you decades to master. The brain begins to crave something new, and you move on; the experience of discovery and mastery of woodworking is ruined.

Modern productivity gurus may tell us that slowing down is a waste of time; Ikigai tells us that slowing down is a pre-requisite to savoring the small things life has to offer.

The Little Book of Ikigai

Ken Mogi wrote an Ikigai book that is easy to read and conveys a clear message: pick something you love and get good at it. Slow down and learn to observe. Preserve, respect, and appreciate. And in doing this, try to live in harmony with the people and the nature around you.

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Perseverance is King

Mogi's writing is filled with examples of Japanese people, both old and young, who strive to excel in their discipline. He highlights how some of them keep working on their craft despite failure and lack of external validation. Some highlights are:

  • A Sushi master who received global acclaim, nonetheless in old age keeps waking up in the morning and making sushi.
  • An 18-year-old Sumo wrestler who is at the bottom of the competitive ladder, but shows up every day nonetheless.
  • Anonymous craftsmen who, for decades, have tried to reproduce the famous Starry Bowls, mysterious ceremonial artifacts retrieved from China; the exact technique used to craft them thousands of years ago remains shrouded in mystery.

All of the people above have one thing in common: they have a clear reason to get up in the morning. They feel as if they were brought into this world to do exactly what they are doing. A purpose in life. This, once again, is common to Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and popular Stoic philosopher, said:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

The book highlights how it's not about the accomplishment itself, but how we get there, and who we become in the process. Testimony to this, Mogi provides two examples.

First is the Ise Shrine in Osaka is rebuilt every 20 years. The reason is simple: teaching the next generation the complex techniques used in building the shrine, which requires no nails but uses a complex process of wood joining instead. It's not about crafting a shrine that will endure forever, it's about the persistence (the stickiness) of the skill of crafting it that endures for generations.

Second, is the traditional form of music and dancing gagaku, traditionally performed in the Japanese Imperial Palace. The peculiarity of gagaku is that it's performed for no audience (the hall is empty except for the musicians), yet the musicians speak of entering a state of flow while performing, and in doing so experience Ikigai.

The Pillars of Ikigai

Ken Mogi structures his book based on the five pillars of Ikigai:

  1. Starting small: as we saw, Ikigai can be found in the small things, and big accomplishments are not a requirement for a happy and fulfilled life.
  2. Releasing yourself: taking yourself out of the equation, entering a flow state regardless of whether you are doing a mundane task like washing dishes or an important one like performing life-saving surgery.
  3. Harmony and sustainability: understanding that society comprises smaller parts (people) and works best when these parts are in harmony. The same concept applies to sustainability within our environment, with sourcing building materials, for example.
  4. The joy of the little things: as we mentioned, sipping a cup of tea, or watching a sunset.
  5. Being in the here and now: thinking about the past can teach us what to do and not to do in the future; thinking of the future can help us plan our lives. But the present is the only time that we exist in. Being in the here and now is something innate to us that is lost as we grow into adults. Mogi's examples remind us how living in the present can be rediscovered throughout our lives.

The book does an excellent job of incorporating these pillars in each chapter, each of which provides a slightly different perspective to each pillar.


The Little Book of Ikigai has found widespread success and I found it achieves its purpose: to condense the concept of Ikigai and make it available to an audience that is not well-versed in Japanese society. I walked away from the book understanding the ideas behind the philosophy, and knowing how to apply it to my life.

Still, a criticism I have is that the examples provided focus heavily on Japanese society, which is understandable, given it's a concept born in Japan. However, in trying to portray Ikigai as a philosophy that is accessible to anyone, it would have helped to read more examples from around the world.

Most of the examples and academic studies referenced in the book are relevant, however, others feel less relevant and forced to fit within the five pillars of Ikigai.

Ken Mogi's own life experience is somewhat missing. Acknowledging that the book is not Ken Mogi's biography, it would have been helpful to learn of a few ways in which Ikigai became useful in his life.

The book includes lots of examples of people trying to attain perfection in pursuit of their Ikigai. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, such as is the case with reproducing the Starry Bowls exactly as they were made, it fails to recognize how, if done improperly, this approach can lead to perfectionism,  which can ultimately detract from life rather than add to it.

Lastly, while the first chapters of the English translation are excellent from a linguistic standpoint, the last few contain minor syntactical and structural mistakes. This does not of course take away from the ideas being shared, and I wouldn't shy away from reading it for this reason, but it may nonetheless make the book a little harder to read.


The Little Book of Ikigai is a short and interesting read that overlaps self-help and philosophy genres. The reader can expect to learn a lot about the philosophy, but also about Japanese society, its approach to life, its traditions, and its history.

Despite minor criticisms, Ken Mogi does a great job of summarizing the philosophy and portraying how it fits and shapes ancient and modern Japan.

Ideas within Ikigai are common across other philosophies and religions, however, the fact they have been academically linked to longevity and lifelong fulfillment and satisfaction is enough of a reason for recommending this book.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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