Inspired by Sea Lions That Make Their “ibasho” on a Beach: A Hint for a Happy Survival

"Creative Corner" contribution by Yoko Mori, University of Otago 





















With the outbreak of COVID-19 leading to border closures, many people have been stuck outside their home countries. They are not only stuck outside their physical homes but also their academic ones—many teachers and researchers have been forced to abandon their original professional time and space. This includes not being able to commute to workplaces, working irregular hours at home, or even having to spend a large amount of time working on other areas outside their disciplines in order to adapt to this new situation. Ambiguity and uncertainty now seem to be the foundation on which to build a meaningful life, at least for the foreseeable future.


Pondering ambiguity and uncertainty, I find that they are not entirely new concepts for me. I was brought up in an environment where my family moved between my home country and overseas multiple times, and so I would often live in ‘liminality’ (in-between space) between different cultures. Currently, I am, again, living in a liminal space between two cultures: Japan and New Zealand. The concept of liminality was coined by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1960) and has often been applied in faculty development (FD) scholarship. For example, Manathunga (2007) depicts faculty developers (or teacher educators) in higher education as struggling to perform their liminal roles “between teachers and students, between academic staff and management, and between teaching and research” (p. 25), which often makes them “unhomely.” For me, whether I have lived in Japan or overseas, I have sometimes been perceived as ‘a visitor,’ sometimes ‘almost a local,’ and at other times, ‘a local.'      


Has this made me unhomely? In fact, no. This has not made me feel culturally displaced or led me to experience an identity crisis. Rather, in retrospect, I believe these experiences have created an identity capital enriching my life with a hybrid sense of self. Though this was not always without struggles, the new places have become an additional ‘home.’ Moving between different worlds has empowered me to make ibasho (“a sense of belonging” in Japanese) and to enjoy liminality, whatever form it may be.


The concept of ibasho is comprised of i (“to stay”) and basho (“place”), which may be interpreted as “a place where one wants to stay.” In Japanese culture, creating an ibasho is widely understood to be inherent in us by realization of “how we are intimately connected to all other living beings” (Murphy-Shigematsu, 2018, p. 99). In this context, Murphy-Shigematsu’s (2018) reference to Einstein’s sense of connectedness that “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space” (p. 98) is very insightful. I believe the sense of belonging and reassurance derived from ibasho is what supports us in being strong and resilient, freeing us from what Einstein describes as ‘prison’ of ‘separate’–ness, especially in challenging times. 

Now, as a student of higher education studying FD and continuing my journey as a teacher and researcher in applied linguistics, I explore my academic ibasho. So far, I have found that the two fields of higher education and applied linguistics largely overlap. Since they are not two distinct areas, I don’t feel like I migrate between the two. For instance, when I teach English, FD knowledge, such as about the effectiveness of active learning, allows me to interact well with students. At the same time, the interdisciplinary approach in teaching English or studying applied linguistics informs my FD research. I am fascinated to find how the two fields work in synergy. Accordingly, though living in a liminal space, I do not feel a lack of sense of belonging. In fact, I feel my ibasho developing and the roots growing in an intertwining way. 


Creating an ibasho could be a strategy for overcoming ambiguity and uncertainty. Living in a liminal space requires much effort, patience, and courage—effort, in the sense that one has to constantly pursue knowledge of multiple fields; patience, due to higher possibility of an unclear career path; courage, for seeing challenges as opportunities. If these requisites could be embraced, the concept of ‘liminality,’ with its implications of ambiguity and uncertainty, may not be so bad after all. As much of the work on ‘liminality’ claims, it also includes ‘openness’ for transferring to another world (Stewart, 2020). Referring to the FD literature, Knapper (1998) characterizes the ambiguous and uncertain condition of the FD field as ‘no bad thing.’ I interpret the ‘openness’ and ‘no bad thing’ as leading to hope—hope for encountering innovative ideas beyond one’s home field/discipline and hope for seeing a world one has never experienced before. 


Now, let me explain a little about the attached photo. In between my studies, I often stroll along beaches. The sound of waves and the immeasurable scale of nature help me to refresh my body and mind. It was on one of these occasions that I happened to encounter this Hooker’s sea lion. 


In normal times, I probably would have passed by with sheer amusement of bumping into this creature of approximately 3.5 m. However, in this period of change to a ‘new normal,’ I was inspired in another way, feeling, “What a wonderful ibasho! You made your own sand blanket and pillow and lie there seeming so comfortable as if this has been your home for a long time!” In this moment, I received a lesson from a content-looking sea lion.


The encounter with this sea lion has given me a hint that in life’s most uncertain times, it may be worth going back to the basics of how to survive happily—to appreciate one’s time and space whatever form it may be, and to make the most of the opportunity to create a unique and comfy ibasho

The pandemic has brought us many challenges that we have never experienced before. In a sense, every one of us is currently in the same liminal space—between the past and the new ‘normal.’ Ambiguity and uncertainty in this transformative period may indeed be daunting. However, I am learning that these can also provide us with the joy of creating a new ibasho, whether it be our physical or academic home (field/discipline). As long as we each have our ibasho, I believe that we can feel that we are not alone and continue to live with much hope and warmth.


Knapper, C. (1998). Editorial: Is academic development a profession? International Journal for Academic Development, 3(2), 93-96.      


Manathunga, C. (2007). "Unhomely" academic developer identities: More post-colonial explorations. International Journal for Academic Development, 12(1), 25-34.


Murphy-Shigematsu, S. (2018). From mindfulness to heartfulness: Transforming self and society with compassion. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Stewart, G. (2020). Maori philosophy: Indigenous thinking from Aotearoa. Bloomsbury Academic.


van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press.

*** Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the editors (Stefan Markus Vogel, Zhenjie Weng, Mariana Lima Becker, and Sooyoung Kang) for their helpful review and support.

author outline

Yoko Mori is a doctoral student of higher education at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests include professional identity development, motivation, English as a Medium of Instruction, intercultural communication, and internationalization of higher education.