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In the mid-1970s, a Japanese American girl, integrated into a white school, attempts to survive her first week of third grade while her mother plans a surprise visit to her daughter's class.
Ikigai follows Mayumi, a 9-year-old girl, as she tries to find balance in her Japanese identity and American nationality. Hanako, her mother who celebrates their culture through Nihon Buyo, sees Mayumi’s new school as an opportunity to share their culture with the white students. When Mayumi is assigned a show-and-tell presentation, she takes it as a chance to prove to her classmates that she is not that different from them. But, that plan is soon ruined when Hanako unexpectedly shows up and teaches the class a Japanese dance, embarrassing and exposing Mayumi’s cultural background. After coming home ashamed of her mother and Japanese identity, Mayumi receives guidance from her parents that motivates her to return to school and redo her show and tell in a way that would make her ancestors proud.
For centuries, dating back to the Heian period [794 to 1185], Japanese neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have researched ikigai and have yet to find an exact definition for the term. Generally understood, ikigai (生きがい, ee-kee-guy) is a Japanese concept that describes the things that make your life worthwhile; the things that give you a deep sense of purpose, satisfaction, and joy. As mentioned, the concept of ikigai has existed for centuries in Japanese culture but was popularized by a Japanese psychiatrist, Mieko Kamiya, in 1966. Considered the "Mother of Ikigai Psychology", Kamiya felt a need to research the concept when her patients suffered from a sense of meaninglessness in their lives. Her investigation can be understood through this quote:
"According to the dictionary, ikigai means "power necessary for one to live in this world, happiness to be alive, benefit effectiveness." When we try to translate it into English, German, French, etc, it seems that there is no other way to define it other than 'worth living' or 'value or meaning to live'. Thus, compared to philosophical theoretical concepts, the word ikigai shows us how much the Japanese language is ambiguous, but because of this it has an effect of reverberation and amplitude."
- Mieko Kamiya, Ikigai ni Tsuite ("The Meaning of Life"), 1966
WHAT IS IKIGAI?
Similar to Kamiya's conclusion, neuroscientist, Ken Mogi, describes ikigai as a spectrum that reflects the complexity of life itself. He believes in the importance of understanding that the simplest things in life are what feed our souls and, therefore, ikigai starts from those very small things. According to Mogi, Japanese people grow up with this multifaceted concept of ikigai and come to understand it more intimately as they grow older, and as they change internally throughout the course of their life.
A diagram, popularized by entrepreneur Marc Winn with a Western perspective, was created in attempt to solidify the meaning of ikigai through four essential conditions: Passion, Mission, Profession, and Vocation. Variations of this diagram have sprouted but all of them are simply not true because their focus is aimed towards career advice rather than life advice. The misconception of these diagrams is that the only way to achieve ikigai, or true happiness, is by meeting all four conditions shown in the diagram.
The study of ikigai begs the question, "What makes one feel that life is worth living?"
Sharing your culture with others, a passion for dance and the arts, the success of your children, acceptance of yourself, a desire to make an impact in the world; these are all potential examples of ikigai.
In the mid-1970s, racism was more prevalent and not addressed as openly as it is today. Although racism was becoming more acknowledged by the majority in the mid-1970s, there was not a lot of cultural exposure and integration in certain areas and neighborhoods. The education system did not have equal opportunities for all students; minorities living in impoverished neighborhoods did not have access to a decent education while wealthier white students were able to afford better educational opportunities in their curriculum.
In 1954, the school districts attempted to bus students from underprivileged neighborhoods into more affluent areas with a high demographic of Caucasian students. The decision of the Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971 sped up school integration, which had been slow to take root. In 1976, the government’s desegregation busing efforts were still trying to gain momentum, however, there was resistance at the community level.
The call for desegregation and the first few years of its implementation led to a series of racial protests and riots that brought national attention.
School districts were trying to integrate the socioeconomic class inequity of the system without consideration of the emotional impact it had on minority students. It was challenging for people of color to fit in with the white students due to the awareness of the imposed mixing of races. The intended positive outcome of this controversial program did not foresee the tension resulting from the social hierarchy which remained in the student population and learning environments of classrooms. Students of color often felt inferior to, and singled out from, the white students which resulted in an internal drive to assimilate and conceal their cultural backgrounds.
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Vera and Darius Swann sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to allow their son to attend Seversville Elementary School, the school closest to their home and then one of Charlotte's few integrated schools. James McMillan, the federal district judge in the case, was a public opponent of busing to integrate schools. When he was presented with the case, he felt that the facts outweighed his feelings. McMillan ruled in favor of the Swanns and oversaw the implementation of a busing strategy that integrated the district's schools. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld busing programs that aimed to speed up the integration of public schools in the United States. From there, busing had become a nationwide mandate.
What is Busing?
Starting in the 1950s, after the Brown v. Board of Education court ruling, desegregation busing was put into effect in an attempt to racially integrate schools. However, it was not implemented until 1971 after the Swann v. Charlotte- Mecklenburg court ruling. Minority students were transported to largely white schools and white students were also brought to largely minority schools. Forced busing intended to safeguard the civil rights of students and provide equal opportunity in public education.
The story of Ikigai, inspired by real events and people, takes place in the midst of this racial turmoil and follows a young Japanese girl, Mayumi Nakaji, as she experiences integration first-hand. At her new school, she is bullied and dismissed by her classmates simply for her racial appearance.
Mayumi’s story holds relevance in our current society because many school districts across the country still remain largely segregated; more than half of U.S. children attend schools in districts where the student population is either more than 75 percent white or more than 75 percent nonwhite.
A 1974 class photo from the actual Mayumi Nakaji, on whom Ikigai is based.
MEET OUR CREW
MAREN EMIKO ELARDO
Writer / Director
ABOUT OUR DIRECTOR
Maren Emiko Elardo is a Japanese-Italian American filmmaker from San Jose, California. She is currently a senior at CSUN, majoring in CTVA Film Production with an emphasis in Editing and minoring in Photography & Video. Maren's interest in video production and storytelling began at a young age when she created stop motion Barbie films, music videos, and skits with her two older sisters, Mikaela and Tara. Since then, she has continued to write, direct, and edit short videos of her own that have been displayed at school assemblies, sports team banquets, software company meetings, family gatherings, and much more. Maren hopes that her work ethic and talents are manifested into her life's work, leaving behind a positive and impactful legacy that reaches a broader audience than just her peers. Telling Japanese American stories and creating opportunities for Japanese American artists is also something that fuels her ikigai.