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How do the Japanese live a long life?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

As of September 2022, the World Population Review declared Japan as having the second-highest life expectancy worldwide. Beaten only marginally by Hong Kong who hold the top spot, the Japanese are living to an average of 84.67 years. But why is this? Is it down to diet? Social practices? Exercise? Genetics? Or a combination of all these factors?

The mystery of Okinawa

Located in the rural north of Okinawa’s main island is the 3,000-person village of Ogimi. Here, even given Japan’s impressive longevity statistics, something fascinating seems to be happening. At the latest count there were 15 villagers who were centenarians and 171 in their 90s. New York Times bestselling author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner calls this a ‘blue zone’; one of only five places in the world where people live the longest, happiest lives. What can Okinawa, and indeed Japan as a whole, teach us about the key to a long and healthy survival? After all, those living there have been through the same hardships as people across the rest of the world – wars, family difficulties, grief, loss, money worries. The same stresses we face, they face. So, what can we learn from them?

10 reasons why the Japanese live a long healthy life

1. Genetics

For almost five-decades, Craig Willcox, professor of public health and gerontology at Okinawa International University, has been investigating Okinawan longevity. Also, a co-principal investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, he has spoken to over 1,000 centenarians and hundreds of younger elders in their seventies, eighties, and nineties to try and understand the health phenomenon seen in Okinawa. The study searches for commonalities in diets, exercise habits, genetics, psychological and spiritual practices, and social and behavioral patterns. Professor Wilcox has concluded that “about two-thirds of longevity is related to diet and way of life, the rest is genetics.”

2. Nutritionally rich foods

The importance of diet as a means of staying healthy can’t be underestimated. We need vitamins and minerals to fight disease and infection and a calorie-controlled diet to prevent obesity and inflammation. The Okinawan diet gives more than the recommended five daily servings of fruit and vegetables and has a greater focus on heart-healthy fish than on meat. Rather than rice, sweet potatoes are staples, which are nutritionally dense but low in calories. Carotenoid-rich marine foods such as seaweeds and iron-rich, green leafy vegetables help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.

3. Matcha tea and its benefits

The Japanese drink a huge volume of tea and in particular, matcha tea. Matcha is becoming more popular in the west as we begin to understand more about its nutritional properties and antioxidant effects, but it seems the Japanese have known this for centuries. The secret to this ancient drink lies in the way it is produced, with the young leaves of the tea plant being deprived of sunlight as it grows to retain its chlorophyll and antioxidant content. Traditional Japanese tea ceremonies have been practiced for more than 1,000 years, with the Japanese drinking tea several times daily.

4. Avoidance of sugar

Japanese cuisine leans further towards the savory than sweet side of the scale. There are of course desserts in Japan, but they are simply not favored as much as desserts are in the western world. As a nation, there is a much lower consumption of sugar, and of foods like white potatoes, which are higher in natural starches. As well as matcha tea, the Japanese consume a lot of green tea, without the sugar and milk that is frequently used to flavor black tea. Less sugar in their diets equates to lower obesity levels and less of the negative effects sugar is known to cause, such as inflammation, higher blood pressure and diabetes – all of which have been linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.

5. Hara hachi bu – eating in moderation

While much of the world views quantity as a sign of quality, eating culture is somewhat more controlled when it comes to portion sizes. Hara hachi bu is the practice of eating in moderation and stopping when you are about 80 percent full. Mealtimes are not solely about food, but about socializing and sharing the overall eating experience with others. It’s a time for communication and reflection, rather than gluttony. Cultural habits can be difficult to change, but those in the western world can make small changes to work towards Hara hachi bu by eating slower, being more mindful of each mouthful and reducing the size of their plates so that smaller portions appear more satiating. As it takes around 20 minutes for your brain to recognize you’re full, this practice is a good reminder to stop eating before you feel you need to.

6. Healthcare

The Japanese government had a large healthcare push around 50 years ago, investing in childhood vaccination programs to ward off future illness and introducing universal health insurance in 1961. Equal and universal access for all is paid for through the government, employers and individuals and regular health check-ups are the norm, as are mass screenings in school and workplaces, conducted by local government authorities. The private sector has also shown an interest in health and in Matsumoto, the second largest city in the Nagano Prefecture, a bank even started offering higher interest rates and incentivized benefits, such as weekend breaks to Disneyland in Tokyo, for those who undertook a medical check-up for three consecutive years.

7. The importance of Ikigai – life’s purpose

Ikiagi is the concept of finding and retaining life’s purpose. This ancient philosophy is like ‘joie de vivre’ in France or ‘hygge’ in Denmark and roughly translates as ‘your reason to live.’ In an aging population, such as in Okinawa, the older population are given tasks such as weaving locally crafted basho-fu textiles, keeping them social active and mentally engaged while also generating an income and contributing to the economy of the village. The Japanese believe that having a purpose is essential for life fulfilment and that in can be found in many different aspects of your life – from eating well to helping others and surrounding yourself with friends and family.

8. Moai – joint support systems

This Japanese support system brings together people with like-minded interests to encourage the development of deep emotional connections and a common bond. A group, or moai, could be formed from old friends, former colleagues or simply those with an interest in the same hobby or game. It is common practice to belong to a number of different moai and, while they have a clear benefit for those who are older, they can be joined at any age. The Japanese are culturally very loyal to their moai, with some having belonged to them since their school days. By discussing and enjoying those things that you find interesting with others who feel the same, you can relieve stress and combat the loneliness that can accompany life’s later years.

9. Exercise

Japan is a very active country, with citizens remaining physical even into their older years. Walking routes around cities and parks are commonplace, and all over the country there are community groups and neighborhood associations that organize group walks. Culturally, more people on average will commute by public transport than by car, so there is naturally a greater degree of physical movement.

10. Mindfulness and stress-release

The Japanese are no stranger to the concept of mindfulness and the benefits of being at one with nature. Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, which is becoming more popular across the world, actually originated in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise to help relax and ground you to the earth. Forest bathing is simple to practice and involves keeping calm and quiet amongst the trees while observing nature and breathing deeply to reduce stress level and boost health and wellbeing naturally. With around 3,000 miles of natural woodland, the Japanese government actively encourage citizens to make use of trees for therapy.   

We all want to know the secret to eternal youth. However, when looking at Japan, it might not be such a secret after all. While genetics may well play a factor, there are clear signs that looking after your body, engaging your mind, and interacting with others may be the best things we can do to live a long and healthy life.