Language helps us pinpoint exactly how we feel. But every language has its limits. Sometimes, it’s hard to find the right words in your native language to express how awesome, weird, horrifying, or hilarious a situation can be. That’s part of what makes learning new languages so fun—it opens up a whole new world of expression.
For example, delightful in English falls flat when what you really want to say is nakakagigil in Tagalog, which means that is so cute I NEED to pinch it.
Or how about the word compromise? Sure, an agreement was reached, but taraadin (تَراضٍ) in Arabic makes a far more endearing point—it means a happy solution for everyone.
In this There’s a Word for That series, we’re taking a look at the words and phrases that get to the heart of extraordinary and everyday situations. Through world-traveler Celinne Da Costa’s keen eye and real-world experiences, we’ll break down the meaning behind each word.
Now, here’s a glimpse into ichi-go ichi-e, a popular Japanese proverb that can expand how you describe and understand chance encounters.
What does Ichi-go Ichi-e (いちごいちえ) mean?
Think of all the people you meet in your lifetime. What if you recognized each of those encounters as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and gave them your utmost presence and attention? Literally translated into ichi (one) go (time) ichi (one) e (meeting/encounter), ichi-go ichi-e is an old Japanese proverb that means one opportunity, one encounter. It can also be interpreted as for this time only, never again, and once in a lifetime. Rooted in Buddhist philosophy, the term ichigo means from one’s birth to death.
In other words, ichi-go ichi-e embodies the philosophy that every moment spent in an encounter should be highly treasured, because it will never occur again.
Practice saying it out loud using the audio file below:
LISTEN: How to pronounce ichi-go ichi-e
Where does the Ichi-go Ichi-e philosophy come from?
The concept dates back to 16th-century Japanese tea ceremonies, where participants would meet to have tea together, with the understanding that this exact ceremony would not reoccur in their lifetime. Because of this, they approached the entire experience with respect, sincerity, and attention.
Celinne, an avid traveler, learned about ichi-go ichi-e from her Japanese friend, Miyako, who, upon being quizzed about untranslatable Japanese words, described it beautifully:
“Ichi-go ichi-e speaks to the idea that no one encounter can ever be recreated: Each moment and each convergence of time, space, light, mood, thought, and circumstance is singular and unrepeatable. As such, every encounter should be met with one’s full, attuned senses. Some encounters plant seeds that take root over time, while others change the course of one’s life in a single moment.”
Celinne’s life has been peppered by these moments. She spent a year traveling around the world, staying in the homes of friends and strangers alike. Her goal was to rediscover what it meant to be human by sharing genuine moments of connection with others.
What experience have you had that shaped your understanding of Ichi-go Ichi-e?
In Celinne’s words, here’s how an uncomfortable situation led to a meaningful chance encounter in Nepal.
There was a particular moment I had during a meditation retreat in Nepal that best upholds the ichi-go ichi-e philosophy. When I signed up for the retreat, I pictured myself sitting cross-legged in deep meditation for a week, the utter depiction of piety and Zen. What actually ended up happening was serious food-poisoning that had me running to the bathroom every hour.
On the fourth day, I was sitting at one of the common tables attempting to down my supper. I must have been quite the sight: pale face, belly loudly gurgling, and making zero attempt to hide my misery.
As I was contemplating yet another bathroom break, a man quietly sat across from me. He softly smiled at me and began eating, when my stomach gurgled and interrupted the silence.
“Are you alright?” he asked me.
I answered, “To be honest, I’m having some of the worst diarrhea of my life.”
Barely batting an eye at my shameless confession, he responded: “Have you tried acupuncture?”
Puzzled (after all, we were in the middle of the Nepalese mountains), I laughed and answered no.
Little could I have expected that the man sitting across from me was an acupuncturist and would immediately offer to treat me right then and there. Out of both curiosity and desperation, I agreed to give it a try.
I’ve never quite experienced intimacy like having a complete stranger stick needles into my stomach within 30 minutes of meeting. Within a day, I was almost back to normal, and shortly after, my newfound friend left the retreat center. I never saw him again.
I couldn’t help but feel that our encounter was not a coincidence. It’s silly to admit that having a bad case of the runs and being lucky enough to have someone there to treat it enriched my life. But this random encounter was one of the many raw acts of trust that I’ve extended during my travels that have beautifully paid off.
Although it hurts to recognize that I may never see that man again (and if I did, it may not be the same), I know that our ichi-go ichi-e was unique and contributed to my trust in people.
The philosophy behind Ichi-go ichi-e is a potent reminder that the beauty of the journey is in how we approach the present. Giving our full presence and attention to each interaction allows us to learn deeply from a wide variety of people. Everyone has the power to bring value into our lives, even those we might not meet again. All we have to do is listen.
Inspired to keep the learning going with Japanese? Rosetta Stone can help you get conversation-ready.
Celinne Da Costa (@CelinneDaCosta) is a brand story coach and writer who shares real, human stories around the world.