Lessons from a Japanese Foreign Service Officer: ‘Work is a gift and work is sacred’


On a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya,  I sat beside a  Japanese foreign service officer  who previously served in Papua New Guinea.  I’ve always found Japan fascinating and I  asked a lot about Japanese culture  and attitudes to various things including work.

He gave me a  few gems of wisdom which stuck ever since.

He said the difference between Papua New Guineans and Japanese is the manner in which they view the concept of work.

From my earliest memories of Sunday school, teachers taught that our daily toil was a form of punishment for ‘man’s’ transgressions at the time of Adam and Eve.  It is a narrative that affects how many people view work.  There is an ever present need to seek the pleasure of rest in the aftermath of work instead appreciating work in the present.

My friend said the Japanese, however, view work as a gift from the gods.  It is sacred and must be cared for and tended to like you would a garden.   The Japanese concept of work made a lot of sense to me personally.

Taking care of a job you have or the work you do and nurturing it is an act of prayer in itself.  It is thanksgiving for your physical abilities, your sight, your hearing, your intellectual ability and your very existence.

The work you do (and I do not mean just employment)  is like a seed given by a higher power. It is a gift that allows you to excel depending on how much effort you put in.   I am no expert in Japanese culture, but the Japanese have a word called ‘ikiagi’.  It’s easiest to think about ikiagi as an intersection or the common ground between:

For many, the mistake we make is to focus on the short term pleasures of rest instead of the high of long term achievement.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to explain why every aspect of life should be savored instead of dulled with intoxication.

The thrill is in the current. NOT in the aftermath. If you focus on the pleasures of what is to come AFTER work, it will be difficult to see the value of the fleeting present.

Work is a gift that exists in the present.

1 comment on “Lessons from a Japanese Foreign Service Officer: ‘Work is a gift and work is sacred’

  1. Very interesting.
    Also learnt in Sunday school that after each day of creation the Creator sat bacj and looked at his crearion and said/declared “it was good” so there are some similarities the the Japanese value of ikiagi.
    Another ineresting theory is by Jared Diamond in his work titled ‘Gems,guns and steel’ where he says that the western civilization was able to develop and advance more rapidly because they were able to mechanise cultivation of food crops and this allowed other members of society to develop other useful skills to solve practicle problems/issues those early societies faced, thus developing other technologies.


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