“Sadame” and the Pursuit of Meaning

I first learned of the concept of sadame this past summer while sitting in on a modern literature class at a Japanese high school.

During my few weeks there, the students were reading a short story called “Sangetsuki” (山月記). Set in ancient China, the story brimmed with archaic language and kanji decidedly out of my league. Even so, I came home and doggedly parsed the text, with the occasional input of my host family, in hopes of being able to follow along in class.

Months later, one line from the story still lingers in my mind:


A possible (rough) translation: “Obediently accepting that which has been forced upon us and continuing to live, without even understanding why, is our sadame as living beings.”

What is sadame?

It’s this kind of concept that describes how all people are resigned to a certain destiny decided before birth. In the western world, we’re familiar with the trope of fate deciding the course of characters’ lives, like the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet. But what struck me about the use of fate in this story was that it described not the content of our lives, but the mere state of existence.

Here, some context is needed.

The protagonist of “Sangetsuki” is a prideful former poet who undergoes a man-to-tiger transformation. In the aforementioned quote, he speaks to his old companion and laments the reality that he is no longer human, and that he has no choice but to accept it. He must live as a beast.

When I asked my host mother about the meaning of sadame, she responded that we are not born into this world because we want to be; we do not have a choice.

It required almost a different frame of mind for me to consider life as a burden and not the immense privilege we are taught to worship. But the more I think thought about this view, the more it made sense to me.

We continue living for lack of a feasible alternative and because we have never known anything else. When our basic needs for survival have been met, we have the luxury of trying to comprehend our own existence. The thought that there might not be any reason is so paralyzing that we adopt comprehensive belief systems and philosophies and chase after abstract goals to fill the void.

“I want to be happy.”

For me, this had long served as an adequate enough motivation to live and to keep advancing towards the next phase.  But now as a senior in high school contemplating what it is that I want in the future, I realize that “happiness” is not substantive enough. It can’t be the end goal.

Happiness is nothing but a transient state of mind, an emotion that is both constantly within my grasp and constantly slipping through my fingers like sand.

Life is not the search for happiness; it is the pursuit of meaning.

Unlike tigers prowling the forest in solitude, us humans have the option—the responsibility—to exist for something more.

Please excuse the cheesiness. This post was written almost a full year ago and banished to Draft Land for further revisions.

Things that have changed:

  • I have graduated high school!

Finally. She will not be missed—at least, not for some time.

  • I am (hopefully!) taking a gap year to study in South Korea through NSLI-Y, corona permitting

It should come as no surprise that this is the catalyst behind the sudden revival of this blog (commitment issues acknowledged). I am cautiously looking forward to returning to Korea, but the current situation is understandably hard to work with, and I can’t say with certainty that my cohort will be able to leave in September as planned—or at all, for that matter. I’d like to explain more about this is in a future post, but right now I’m just hoping for the best 🙂

  • Writing is a bit awkward these days

The reason behind this is more or less a bizarre number of college app essays, which sounded less and less like me as time went on. Writing began to feel stressful, forced, and not at all like the enjoyable hobby it always has been for me.

I haven’t wanted to write in a while, but hopefully casual entries like this with no real purpose or audience will at least help me to start getting words out of my head and onto a page.

Things that have not changed:

  • I have yet to figure out the meaning or purpose of my life

No surprise there. I don’t really think was ever a priority—even as I was writing this essay.

But I must say, those were some big words for a confused high school senior hard-pressed to decide on a major, let alone the purpose of her life. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the work I pursue in the future really needs to align perfectly with my passions, and…I still have no clue.

  • I still do love writing

And talking about languages! In the interest of ending this on a more positive note, I wanted to clarify that, though writing is more difficult these days, I still enjoy it and intend to keep updating this blog—despite the huge gaps in between posts that might suggest otherwise.

To anyone who’s taken the time to read through all of this rambling, I appreciate you a lot 🙂

I hope to be back with more interesting posts in the near future!

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

6 thoughts on ““Sadame” and the Pursuit of Meaning

  1. Try to connect up with a corporation or job that has a very large mission that you can get on board with. If you don’t succeed not much is lost as you are young and you can try something different. The twenties kind of set the course of a work life. Make an effort and take chances to get a job that that is part of large positive changes in the World. There you can find meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this and what kinds of organizations would allow me to focus on this type of work. Thank you for your input! 🙂


    • Aww thank you so much!! I always enjoy reading your posts 😊 Also yeah, I hadn’t heard of sadame before reading “Sangetsuki” either. I think it’s a bit more obscure than 運命 (unmei), which I understand to be the less antiquated/poetic equivalent 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi!
    I’m a new blog reader (meaning I rarely read blogs whoops) and I recently stumbled across your blog posts while looking for study abroad tips. Your posts so engaging and I always love reading about your experiences abroad!

    I’m also class of 2020 and taking a gap year! And I’m totally with you on the college essay part; they are absolutely soul-draining!

    I noticed from your other posts that you studied abroad in Japan and had a host family. I’m planning on doing the same during my gap year but I have no idea what program I should apply to or look for. Do you have any recommendations? What program did you go to?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hannah, thanks for your comment! When I went to Japan, I was actually piloting a study abroad program for high school students in Ohio. My friend’s mother is a Japanese professor, and she was having a few students test it out to see whether such an exchange program would be feasible. I’m not really sure if it was ever launched in subsequent years!

      But I remember looking into some of the YFU scholarships when I’d been researching these programs a while back:

      – [https://www.yfuusa.org/study/scholarships](https://www.yfuusa.org/study/scholarships)

      Also, this YouTube video is a very comprehensive guide on how to search for study abroad scholarships to Japan in particular:

      – [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEFcereRSOM&t=7s&ab_channel=KemushiChanロレッタ](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEFcereRSOM&t=7s&ab_channel=KemushiChan%E3%83%AD%E3%83%AC%E3%83%83%E3%82%BF)

      Though I honestly haven’t seen too many gap year programs out there for Japan, I think you may have more luck with summer programs. I wish I could be of more help, but I unfortunately don’t have too much information on this 😅

      One thing I’ve noticed is that there are significantly more opportunities and scholarships to study abroad in Japan for college students—either through your university or through programs like the Critical Language Scholarship. So I would potentially look into these as well if you’re opening to studying abroad in college!

      Also, I realize I never updated this post, but my plans to take a gap year were actually kinda squashed by COVID so I ended up starting college this fall instead 😦 It’s definitely tougher than most years, but I wish you the best of luck with your gap year!


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