Ikigai during a pandemic


This time of year usually marks the height of the annual fair, festival and bazaar circuit, when Nikkei families and friends travel near and far to get their “fix” of favorites, such as teriyaki burgers, “the best” teriyaki chicken, steaming bowls of udon or manju with a modern twist. For many, annual cultural and community events provide a sense of tradition, purpose and connection throughout the year. This year, with most of these events being canceled due to COVID-19, many report missing this aspect of what was once “normal.” One San Francisco resident, self-identified as “the anonymous masked Sansei,” said he misses the bazaars because they are his “summer ritual,” and he has “been to most every Obon bazaar in NorCal.”

Behind every community event is a team of volunteers who donate countless hours to make things happen. Serving and supporting these events give many people a sense of purpose or “ikigai.” Jisho.org describes this Japanese concept as “reason for living; something one lives for; purpose in life; raison d’être​.”*

At 91, Kinu Nakano says, “I don’t care how old you are. You have to have a purpose!” A Southern California native, Nakano moved from her Glendale, Calif. home of 55 years to a senior living community in January, just before sheltering-in-place. She continues to live independently and is enjoying life to the fullest. No longer having to cook or clean has allowed her to embrace her passion for plants and trees. Her daily activities include morning walks, reading the Los Angeles Times, watching Korean dramas and making trips to the nursery in search of resilient plants for her yellow-themed porch area.

When asked what she looks forward to when gathering in groups becomes safe again, she said she can’t wait to resume her “Hand and Foot” card groups and finally meet her new neighbors.

“I want to volunteer, too. I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but I want to do something. I feel so blessed to have my marbles and mobility. I also want to do quilting.” She is grateful for her children and grandchildren, and looks forward to the family being able to get together again. Having no qualms about disclosing her age, she said, “I’m 91! After 80, it’s bragging rights!”

Mayumi Hirahara’s painting of poppies. courtesy of Mayumi Hirahara

Mayumi Hirahara has not let the pandemic stop her from finding ways to enjoy her passion for flowers and gardening. She still visits the Huntington Library and gardens regularly, as well as the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Since retiring from her administrative position with Alhambra High School 15 years ago, she has taken exercise, watercolor, photography and Spanish classes. She and a few friends, known as the Urban Adventure Group, have explored the LA area using only public transportation. She has also enjoyed traveling, going to museums, reading e-books on her Kindle and volunteering for Sakura Gardens (formerly Keiro Retirement Home).

As a hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor) from Hiroshima, Hirahara describes the current pandemic as “a different kind of stress.” She said, “During the war, we knew what was happening and the purpose. With this pandemic, we are facing the unknown. We don’t know what to expect, which causes a lot of underlying stress and anxiety for everyone.” When asked what advice she might have for others, she recommends the advice that was once given to her: “Surround yourself with people who inspire.”

FINDING PURPOSE IN ART ­— Kay Nomura drawing succulents. courtesy of Kay Nomura

San Francisco native Kay Nomura was an educator with the San Francisco Unified School District, then the Alameda Unified School District until she retired 17 years ago. As a caregiver, she now balances caregiving with creativity, with art being a way to take her mind off of things. With her husband Bob Harrington’s health condition being highly unpredictable, Nomura emphasizes the importance of daily flexibility. She and Harrington have a mutually respectful team approach, which works well even during the pandemic. To minimize the risk of exposure, their daily grocery store outings have been reduced to about once a week. “I’m super conscious about keeping him well.” As an original member of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California’s “Art and Beyond” class led by Rich Tokeshi, she says art has kept her sane during the pandemic.

Although the class remains connected through Zoom, she looks forward to meeting in-person again. Nomura has also found ways to use her skills to support the community. For example, she sewed and donated about 30 cloth face masks to Kimochi Inc.

Glenn Yoshida in Southern California has also enjoyed art classes since retiring at the end of 2012 as Los Angeles Southwest College’s department chair of Natural Sciences, Health and PE (now Kinesiology) and a professor of anatomy and physiology. During his 36 years with the college, “there wasn’t time to do much outside of work,” he said.

Although he enjoyed playing racquetball, attending church and taking family vacations during both spring break and the summer, retirement opened the doors for “right brain” activities and things he never had the chance to try while working. He went through an eight-week docent training at Eaton Canyon, learning about plants and animals.

A year after retiring, Yoshida became a caregiver when his father-in-law moved in. He provided hands-on care for two-and-a-half years. During the pandemic, he has been grocery shopping for his parents, both in their 90s.

He also volunteers at church, assisting with administrative duties while in-person church gatherings are not being held. While he misses playing racquetball, he and his wife enjoy walking for exercise.

With the need to shelter-in-place, they started thinking about interior home improvements. In the past few months he painted the entire house, including the ceilings. “Seeing the results gave me a sense of accomplishment.” When asked what he looks forward to once the pandemic settles, he said, “Interacting with people without face masks and being socially close again.” When asked what he might say to his students if he was still working, he said, “Scientists and medical staff are doing the best they can to find a vaccine to prevent this, like we have for the flu. You’re not alone. Others like you are fearful and may need help. Don’t isolate.

Resources are available to you. Talk about it.”

Although many of the aforementioned people have similar interests, “ikigai” is unique to each individual and can enhance their life at any age. It is never too late for one to find their “ikigai,” even during a pandemic.

Nevertheless, the realities of individuals’ practical needs and challenges during the pandemic, such as economic hardship, grief and loss and medical conditions, are legitimate. Additionally, if prolonged isolation and inactivity are taking a toll on one’s physical, mental and spiritual health, it is important to acknowledge and recognize the need for support and care beyond finding “ikigai.”

Many resources and services are available. People may contact their health care provider, church or community center. For local information and referrals in North America, calling 211 is available in most areas 24/7. Many health plans also have 24/7 helplines.

*While there are different, more subtle interpretations of “ikigai,” for the purposes of this article the general translation of “a reason for being” is used.

Genki Aging is a series of articles and videos on aging in the Japanese American community. It was funded by a generous grant from the JA Community Foundation.

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