[LI] Four categories of “work” in Japanese & “ikigai”

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 14 February 2018.

Modified image from: 「生きがい」で食べていく人生マップ 今、あなたがいる地点は? Kazuaki Ohara, Forbes Japan, 26/9/2017

“Work” in English can mean a number of things, but it is often used synonymously with job or employment. On a high level then, without getting into very specific kinds of activity, “work” is generally paid (a job) and when it isn’t, it isn’t called work, or is given a modifier to set it apart. Of course we have a lot of terms for specific activities, trades, and professions, and descriptives ranging from say “labor” to “vocation.” But it seems in English it all boils down to a binary: work is what you’re paid to do or earn money doing, except when it isn’t. And in the face of the familiar “work-life” dichotomy, unpaid work somehow fades completely from consideration, whatever its value to our personal, family, and social lives.

4 ways of describing work in Japan

So it was of interest to come across a set of terms in Japanese describing four different categories of work that seem to take account of a broader range of work motivations and situations:

  • “rice work” 「ライスワーク」 (cf. English “breadwinner,” “bringing home the bacon,” etc.)
  • “like work” 「ライクワーク」 (“like” as in enjoy)
  • “life work” 「ライフワーク」 (as in the English concept of “life’s work,” but this may be more limited)
  • “light work” 「ライトワーク」 (“light” as in illuminate)

Two things to note. First, from what I can tell as a non-speaker of Japanese accessing Japanese sites with aid of Twitter and Google search & translation, these categories are current in the popular discourse as ways to describe one’s perception of different kinds of work, as well as different people’s approach to the same work. Sometimes all four terms are used together,¹ sometimes just three,² and sometimes only two.³

Second, is a point that someone who reads Japanese katakana would have immediately recognized (I had to use an online converter): the words in these terms are actually borrowed from English. Transliterated back to Latin letters (aka rōmaji in Japan), they are raisuwāku, raikuwāku, raifuwāku, and raitowāku – not hard to figure out which wāku is which work. However, the word combinations, with the exception of lifework (and “light work” in an unrelated sense), are not used in English. These are Japanese constructs.

That in turn raises some questions: Why resort to English borrowings for ideas that could certainly be expressed with Japanese vocabulary – such as its closest equivalent to “work,” shigoto 仕事 (or しごと)?⁴ What would be the cultural content of these same concepts expressed in Japanese words?⁵ And given that these four terms are built with English words, what is the potential they could be brought back full-circle to enrich the Anglophone discourse about the meaning of work and the future of jobs?

Do these terms fit in “ikigai”?

Another question is how these four wākus fit with a Japanese concept that has already received a fair amount of attention in the West (and here on LinkedIn): ikigai 「生き甲斐」 (or 「生きがい」). This term, derived from the Japanese iki 生き (“life”) and kai 甲斐 (“effect”), is often translated as “reason to live.”

Ikigai came into popular discourse in the West perhaps a decade ago in the context of studies on longevity. The release last year of a couple of popular press books on the subject⁶ certainly has raised its profile.

Along the way, ikigai was presented in the context of meaning in careers as the overlap of 4 kinds of work activity (the Venn diagram illustration in the picture at the head of this article, specifically the black outlines & text within the circles, originated with Marc Winn⁷; there are many iterations⁸). The four are:

  • That which you love
  • That which you are good at
  • That which the world needs
  • That which you can be paid for

What’s interesting here is that this schema arose in English writing, and appears to be recycling back to Japan. Whether it accurately reflects Japanese ways of thinking about ikigai and/or the apparently separate emergence of the four wākus discussed above, are outstanding questions. It is significant that Kazuaki Ohara, the Forbes Japan author whose diagram (the lines and text in black, minus my annotations in red) heads this article, used English and only annotated it in Japanese. (Source cited in caption above; link here, translation here.) He evidently also used a slide with that exact same annotated diagram for a talk in Japanese.⁹ (Again, note that the annotations in red in the image above are my additions.)

So it is not entirely clear how these four categories in the ikigai model relate to the four categories of wāku. There are apparent correspondences, as I attempted to illustrate by adding terms, in red, to the diagram above. But it almost seems the two systems exist in parallel. (Except that in Mr. Kazuaki’s talk mentioned in the preceding paragraph, the term 「ライスワーク」 “rice work” came up; other terms discussed above were not noted.)

Lessons for the rest of the world

In any event, if we outside of Japan are to use this ikigai concept and diagrammatic depiction, it would seem very useful to be able at the same time to discuss the components of that system – the four circles – as different aspects or types of work in their own right. And to that end, the four apparently corresponding wāku designations, “repatriated” to English, might be helpful.

One way or another, we Anglophones would benefit from a richer typology of “work” and what about it beyond sustenance helps makes life worthwhile. It seems Japan has more than one lesson to offer here.


1. ライスワーク(rice work)、ライクワーク(like work)、ライフワーク(life work)、ライトワーク(light work)[Rice work, like work, life work, light work], B-cafe.net, 2015.5

2. あなたがしている仕事はライスワーク?ライクワーク?ライフワーク? [The work you are doing is rice work? Like work? Life work?], Menzine.jp, 2013.05.02

3. 「ライフワーク」と「ライスワーク」の両立: 藝大卒イラストレーターが選んだ“都合のいい”働き方とは? [Combining “Life Work” and “Rice Work”: What is the “convenient” way of work selected by Yuji Big grad school illustrator?], @IT Special, 2016.3.31

4. One item seems to use shigoto as an overarching term: ライスワーク・ライクワーク・ライフワーク。3つのワークから自分がしたいシゴトを考える [Rice work · like work · life work. Think about the shigoto you want from three work], Sugar-up.com, 2017.12.26

5. For example, it is possible to say「米仕事 」(beishigoto??) for “rice work,” though I have no idea what other nuances of meaning that might carry. See for example: 「米仕事よりも花仕事を」ななつ星デザイナー・水戸岡鋭治さんの仕事哲学 [“Flower work rather than rice work” Nanae star designer · Mr. Mito Oka’s work philosophy] , Run to Infinity (blog), 2017.03.11

6. Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life, Hutchinson, 2017 (first edition in 2016, possibly in French) & Ken Mogi, The Little Book of Ikigai: The secret Japanese way to live a happy and long life, Quercus, 2017.

7. “What is your Ikigai?” The View Inside Me (blog), 14.5.2014. Mark Winn, the author of the article and the blog, gives background to the genesis of this diagram, along with discussion of its path since, in another post: “Meme Seeding,” 25.10.2017.

8. See for example: “How to Find Your Ikigai – Your Reason for Being,” Tokyo Weekender, 16.9.2017 & “Is this Japanese concept the secret to a long, happy, meaningful life?” World Economic Forum, 9.8.2017

9. ヒントは“時間を忘れることを探す” 己のストロングポイントは「没頭」が生み出す [Hints are “to find time to forget” My strong point is created by “immersion”], Logmi.jp, 2017.11.13

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