What makes for a meaningful life? In the Japanese context, the concept of ikigai provides a clue. Translated as "that which makes one's life worth living," ikigai has also come to mean that which gives a person happiness. In Japan, where the demographic cohort of elderly citizens is growing, and new modes of living and relationships are revising traditional multigenerational family structures, the elderly experience of ikigai is considered a public health concern. Without a relevant model for meaningful and joyful older age, the increasing older population of Japan must create new cultural forms that center the ikigai that comes from old age.
In Making Meaningful Lives, Iza Kavedžija provides a rich anthropological account of the lives and concerns of older Japanese women and men. Grounded in years of ethnographic fieldwork at two community centers in Osaka, Kavedžija offers an intimate narrative analysis of the existential concerns of her active, independent subjects. Alone and in groups, the elderly residents of these communities make sense of their lives and shifting ikigai with humor, conversation, and storytelling. They are as much providers as recipients of care, challenging common images of the elderly as frail and dependent, while illustrating a more complex argument: maintaining independence nevertheless requires cultivating multiple dependences on others. Making Meaningful Lives argues that an anthropology of the elderly is uniquely suited to examine the competing values of dependence and independence, sociality and isolation, intimacy and freedom, that people must balance throughout all of life's stages.
Iza Kavedžija is Lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Philosophy, and Anthropology at the University of Exeter.