Okinawa has been famous as a place where people live well into old age, but that began to change in the years after the war. How Japan’s record life expectancy declined after adopting a western lifestyle is a cautionary tale for all.
The inhabitants of Okinawa Prefecture in Japan have quite a notoriety for being amongst the world’s longest-lived individuals for generations.
Medical specialists and gerontologists have swarmed to these semi-tropical islands off the coast of southern Japan in quest of the secret to the indigenous population’s longevity, with the majority determining that it is a blend of a balanced diet, frequent exercise, and family and community support.
That is, unfortunately, changing now. And, while the Japanese population as a whole is living longer than ever before, Okinawans are dying younger. Younger generations are being condemned for having turned their backs on the islands’ traditional way of life.
Okinawa had the greatest average life span for both men and women in 1980, with males projected to live to be at least 84 and women expected to live to be at least 90.
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Life expectancy declines
However, that outstanding track record has started to deteriorate. By 1990, Okinawan men had the fifth greatest average life expectancy of the 47 prefectures in Japan, and by 2020, they had dropped to 36th place. Until 2005, Okinawan women were at the top of the prefectural list, but by 2020, they had dropped to seventh place.
Okinawan men lived to an average age of 80.27 and women lived to an average age of 87.44, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s 2020 census.
Makoto Suzuki is passionate about the subject; he is 89 years old and has spent his entire life researching the factors that contribute to the longevity of his fellow islanders.
Suzuki, who still works part-time as a clinical cardiologist and is co-founder of the Naha-based Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Sciences, said, “The life expectancy of the people of Okinawa is coming down quite rapidly and we believe the problem is that younger people have failed to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations.”
“The people of Okinawa have been influenced by the food and lifestyle choices of other societies, particularly that of the United States,” he told DW.
Okinawa has been home to a huge number of US military sites and tens of thousands of troops since Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II in 1945. Locals have adopted a culture of fast food and tv over physical activity, he claims, and the repercussions can now be seen.
“Typically, the Okinawan diet included lots of vegetables, local fruit, dishes such as ‘tofu’ and fish and meat, although in small portions,” he said, adding: “When I was a boy, we had meat about once a week and that is a habit I have stuck with to this day.”
“When I was younger, I would also do a lot of walking, climbing and archery, but I do not do so much now, mostly because I just do not have the time for those hobbies any more.”
The importance of ‘ikigai’
“I also believe the concept of ‘ikigai’ is important to our lives, especially in older people,” Suzuki stated while referring to the conventional concept of one’s cause for living.
“My job at the hospital is very busy and that is my ikigai,” he said. “It is important for me to help people who are sick and I do not consider them my patients, I see them as my friends. But being with them also helps me as isolation and loneliness are very dangerous for old people.
“My wife died two years ago so now I often go to the hospital in the night to be with other people as my friends are there.”
External factors, according to Tomoko Owan, an associate professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of the Ryukyus, have had such a detrimental effect on the islanders’ well-being.
“Okinawa has been famous as a place where people live well into old age, but that began to change in the years after the war,” she said. “People from overseas moved here and they brought their own cultures with them. Slowly, local people became mixed in with these newcomers and our diet and traditions changed.”
She mentions food as one key factor that has changed, but there are others.
The lessons of karate
“This was an island society in which the family and community were always very important,” she said. “It was peaceful and, in the past, the people had little stress.”
Several Okinawans have lately embraced the “hurry, hurry” style to life that is more synonymous with mainland Japanese, according to Owan, while rising work commitments imply there is less opportunity for leisure, friends and family, and hobbies.
Karate is unmistakably connected with Okinawa, and many older Okinawans still pursue the martial art. Owan teaches karate at her university and considers it an essential element of her daily exercise routine. She emphasizes that it is training for the body, mind, and soul.
However, younger Okinawans appear satisfied with their current lifestyle, even if it means they will not live as long as their ancestors.
“This is the modern Japanese lifestyle,” said Shuhei Kohagura, a 39-year-old official with the prefecture’s tourism agency, confessing that he works a great deal of extra hours each week, buys a snack from a local convenience store for lunch, and goes out drinking with coworkers after office.
“I grew up with this way of living so it is comfortable for me now, even though I do complain that I’m too busy a lot of the time,” he said. “The traditional way of life here might sound appealing but I think it would be very hard for me to adapt to that because it is just so different to everything that I have become accustomed to.”
Suzuki stated that his mother lived to be 105 years old and that he wanted to serve as a doctor for as long as feasible.
“I think the young people of Okinawa have failed to learn from their elders,” he said. “It’s unfortunate as they are not living so long, but our society has undergone serious changes in a short period of time.”