January 19, 2023
Robin Powell

Six Lessons from Japan on Living a Long and Healthy Life

Most of us would like to live a long and healthy life. After all, there’s no point in working hard and investing for decades if your retirement only lasts a few years, or if you aren’t mentally and physically capable of enjoying it.

A country that’s had consistently higher life expectancy (and particularly healthy life expectancy) than almost any other is Japan. And the healthiest region of Japan is Okinawa, a group of islands approximately 400 miles to the south of the main island of Kyushu.

Once called the land of the immortals, Okinawa has a significantly lower incidence of cancer, heart disease and dementia than most developed countries. Women on the islands live longer than women anywhere else on earth.

Because of this, the Okinawan lifestyle has been the subject of a large body of academic research. So, what are the secrets behind the islanders’ longevity? And what can the rest of us learn from them about living to a ripe old age?

1. Keep moving

Okinawans aren’t particularly sporty, and nor are they necessarily gym-goers. But they do keep physically active.

A longstanding tradition is Radio Taiso, a low-intensity workout that is generally practised in the morning. Among older people, gardening is particularly popular, and instead of driving or using public transport, Okinawans tend to walk as much as possible. 

They also spend far less time sitting in a chair than most Australians do. That’s because their houses have very little furniture, so they relax and take their meals seated on mats on the floor. Crucially, the fact that older people get up and down off the floor many times daily builds balance and lower body strength, which helps prevent falls.

2. Eat more healthily

It’s well known that the Japanese have a healthy diet, but the Okinawan diet is healthier still. For a start, it includes very little meat or dairy. Protein usually comes mainly from soy and tofu. 

Islanders eat a wide variety of foods, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. They eat plenty of grains, like rice or noodles, and they use salt and sugar only very sparingly. 

The diet is also rich in antioxidants; green tea, for example, is one of Okinawa’s most popular beverages, and is commonly taken with jasmine, a herb that is known to improve cardiovascular health and boost immune function.

Another key factor is that Okinawans generally stick to small portion sizes. They abide by a concept called hara hachi bu, which means they stop eating when you’re around 80 per cent full, and they also use small plates.

3. Find an activity to lose yourself in

Another concept that Okinawans cherish is what’s sometimes referred to as flow. The term was coined in the 1970s by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and describes a state of enjoyment and concentration so deep that it blocks out any worries or negative feelings.

Studies have shown that seeking out activities which produce this sense of flow can increase your enjoyment of life and your longevity. The key is to find something that is so engrossing that you even lose track of time.

It might be a work activity, for example. Okinawan employees are encouraged to take real pride in their work, to specialise in a particular area and pay close attention to detail.

But islanders also take their leisure time seriously. As well as exercise, walking and gardening, older Okinawans enjoy socialising with friends and even taking the stage at karaoke bars.

4. Reduce stress and worry

Several scientific studies have shown a link between premature ageing and stress.

Although Japanese working culture can be quite intense, the people of Okinawa are generally better than most at handling stress. In his book Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest, Dan Buettner writes: “A hardship-tempered attitude has endowed Okinawans with an affable smugness. They’re able to let difficult early years remain in the past while they enjoy today’s simple pleasures.”

One of the reasons for this is a Japanese de-stress therapy known as Morita. Invented by a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner called Shoma Morita, it combines rest and relaxation with journaling, walking, breathing exercises and creative pursuits.

Another Japanese concept which helps to combat stress is wabi sabi. This is the idea that only imperfect objects, like a cracked teacup, can be truly beautiful. Letting go of our quest for perfection, wabi sabi adherents believe, and positively embracing our imperfections, allows us to see things afresh. Instead of worrying about things not being quite right, we’re able to appreciate what we already have.

5. Develop closer social bonds

Research shows that our social connections can have a big impact on our health and longevity, and Okinawans are certainly very sociable people.

They make a habit of greeting others, even strangers, with a smile. They also have a tradition of belonging to social networks called moai. Essentially, moai are social support group whose members meet regularly to socialise, support one another and enjoy shared interests. 

Dan Buettner found members of these networks who had met as children and remained close friends for 90 or even 100 years. But older islanders, he discovered, also value the company of young people, and again, the emphasis is on supporting one another.

Buettner describes meeting an Okinawan woman named Kamada Nakazato, who was 102 years old at the time. “I used to be very beautiful,” Kamada told him. “I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realise that beauty is within. It comes from not worrying so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others.”

6. Find your deeper purpose

The sixth and arguably most important lesson we can learn from the people of Okinawa about living a long and healthy life is all to do with ikigai, a Japanese word which roughly translates to the meaning of life, or the thing that makes you get out of bed each day in eager anticipation.

Ikigai is also the title of a short but very readable book by Hector Garcia Puigcerver and Francesc Miralles. In it they describe ikigai as an intersection between four different elements: what you’re passionate about, where your skills lie, how you can earn a living and what the world needs. Many Japanese people believe that everyone has an ikigai, or destiny, that they were born to fulfil. 

The challenge, then, for all of us, is to discover what our purpose is. In the words of the authors, “we don’t create the meaning of our life, as Sartre claimed — we discover it.”

So, have you discovered your ikigai yet? If you haven’t, don’t worry about it, because you’re certainly not alone. But do think about it carefully. And if you’re still struggling to find it, try enlisting the help of a financial planner, or another impartial observer.

Life is too short not to know your reason for living. Don’t give up until you’ve found it.

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