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The inhabitants of the Japanese island Okinawa famously live long, satisfied lives. What is the secret ...
2021-04-26 09:00:00
healthy living
Bravo, Okinawa!

On the Japanese island Okinawa, which is hot like lava and full of ghosts, soldiers and blissful views, people live much longer than in other parts of the world. What is the secret behind their longevity?

Read in 7 minutes

With a dose of dark humour typical of the Japanese, my friend once told me something that stayed in my memory for a long time: “If you were born in Okinawa, and you happen to sneeze, there will always be someone to respond: a soldier from the military base, a family member, or a stray ghost.”

I remember this joke, since it perfectly captures the spirit of Okinawa – its local nature, unique history and love for folklore. Hailed as the ‘Japanese Hawaii’ or the ‘Galapagos of the East’, it’s a fascinating place full of paradoxes. Its tropical climate and azure waters intermingle with memories of the bloody battles of World War II. In the Okinawa Prefecture, there are still 26,000 American soldiers, which accounts for more than half of the US troops now stationed in Japan (their military presence is disapproved of by 80% of the Japanese). Located south of the island of Kyushu, Okinawa is closer to Taipei (645 kilometres) than Tokyo (1555 kilometres). Until the mid-19th century, it was an entirely separate country known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, with its own language and rich culture. Nowadays, the Okinawan economy is weak, which comes as no surprise, since only 49 out of the 160 islands that make up its archipelago are populated. Perhaps this is why the idea that there is something ‘non-Japanese’ about the Okinawans is so deeply-rooted here?

Sweet potatoes and gossip

“First, I cut off your head. Then, I cleave you in two.” These words are engraved on the sword that belongs to sensei Hamamoto, a famous local instructor of martial arts. Fans of the 80s blockbuster Karate Kid (or the Cobra Kai series) know very well that Okinawa is the birthplace of karate. However, what this island is most famous for is the longevity of its inhabitants. In his book The Blue Zone, journalist Dan Buettner follows Okinawans – the ‘Methuselahs’ of the world – to unravel the secret behind their life span. Apparently, what makes them so healthy are beta-carotene-rich sweet potatoes, bitter melons and casual meetings with moai: groups of lifelong friends. One can learn about the country’s spirit based on its language. The Inuits have dozens of words to refer to snow, while the Okinawans have no word to describe ‘retirement’. They also hardly ever experience heart diseases, and women so rarely get breast cancer that unlike elsewhere in Japan, in Okinawa’s hospitals there are no mammograms.

The land of perfect health

As the elderly people from Ōgimi, a village in the north of Okinawa, say: “At 70 you’re still a child; at 80 you’re just a youth; and at 90, if the ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you’re 100, and then you might consider it.” This quote is sourced from the book The Okinawa Way by Bradley J. Willcox, Craig D. Willcox and Makoto Suzuki. They draw on extensive research that supports Buettner’s observations about the exceptionally good health of the Okinawans. To describe Okinawa, they use the name ‘Shangri-La’ – the mythical paradise land from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.

They ask us to imagine a typical town, where 100,000 people live: “If the town were located in Okinawa, only eighteen people would die from coronary heart disease in a typical year. If the town were in the United States, 100 people would die. Simply put, if Americans lived more like the Okinawans, we would have to close down 80 percent of the coronary care units and one-third of the cancer wards in the United States, and a lot of the nursing homes would also be out of business.”

The real numbers are equally striking. As for 2017, for every 100,000 inhabitants, Okinawa has 68 centenarians. Poland, by contrast, has only 11.

Feed your soul

In Asia, it’s commonly held that a healthy mind is a healthy body, especially since for the Okinawans, the soul – mabui – is the most essential part of us. Okinawa’s spiritual life is filled with magic, beliefs and superstitions. The entire archipelago is believed to be inhabited by ghosts, goblins, elves and phantoms, which are all described as yōkai. When something wicked or strange happens, they’re the ones to blame.

The elders of Okinawa say that when you sneeze, part of your soul escapes your body and one of the mischievous goblins waits to catch it. To prevent this from happening, you have to shout Kusuke!, which literally translates as ‘Eat crap!’. Swear words are supposed to shoo away evil spirits.

In her Folktales of Okinawa, Jayne A. Hitchcock mentions other local beliefs. Since the soul is thought to be pickier than the body, it needs to be properly guarded so that it can’t escape. Whenever a person witnesses – or worse – is involved in an accident, they have to quickly shout in local dialect: Mabuya mabuya muduimisori!, which translates into: ‘Please, my soul, come back to me!’

Another crucial aspect of Okinawan spirituality are rituals celebrating older age. According to ayakaru custom, touching an older person brings happiness and makes you live long. The spiritual part of life is managed by elderly female shamans called yuta (although occasionally men perform this role, too). Long-haired and dressed in white, they’re treated with respect – like physicians – since for many years they’ve been helping the Okinawans deal with both physical and spiritual problems. People reach out to them not only when they have a toothache or a cold, but also when they suspect that an evil spirit keeps on hiding their car keys. It’s worth emphasizing, however, that when it comes to a philosophy of life, the Okinawans are quite pragmatic. They’re capable of conjoining profound spirituality and a belief in the powers of nature with science-based methods of treatment. To understand Okinawa, one needs to consider its religious ambivalence. Like elsewhere in Japan, there are Shinto shrines alongside Confucian and Buddhist temples there, yet at the same time the Okinawans, like animists, believe that true spirit permeates everything: oceans, beaches, stones, animals and plants.

Strong social bonds

Like a group of 20-year-olds from the series Friends, the elderly of Okinawa discovered that social bonds help us tackle everyday problems and enjoy life more fully. Lisa Berkman, a professor from Harvard University, has long been researching the impact of a rich social life on our lifespan. Her research suggests that those who didn’t grow old alone lived for over a dozen years longer than those who did. They were also healthier.

“Neurons that fail to connect, however, deprived of nourishment, will quickly decay. Life without the support of the network – both big and small – cannot last,” writes Nabil Khaja, a young researcher from McMaster University in Ontario, who for two months was examining the habits of older Okinawans. He observed that they maintain strong bonds within groups of friends (moai). Such groups, however, have to be small (no more than five people), so that close ties can be efficiently fostered without any stress. Such an approach also supports deep friendships.

One of the most beautiful examples of the local philosophy of life is yuimaru – the spirit of cooperation. Okinawans also help those who don’t belong to their clan. It’s natural for them that if a neighbour, tourist or friend of a friend needs help, they will get it. It doesn’t matter if it’s about watering plants, lending money or putting someone up. As an Okinawan saying goes: “If you make a friend in Okinawa, you made a friend for life.”

So, what about this longevity? Might it be theorized and squeezed into a bottle like an elixir for busy and stressed yuppies from big cities? Researchers from around the globe agree that it’s the uniqueness of Okinawa – its slow pace of life, provincialism, old culture and tradition, as well as unique diet, climate and customs – that all have a beneficial effect on the health of the locals. The secret behind their longevity is likely to exist, but it can be unravelled only locally by those who are truly committed. In other words, to join the ranks of ‘Methuselahs’, you basically need to move to Okinawa. Ready?

What to eat to live (almost) forever and stay healthy

As of 2017, for every 100,000 inhabitants, Okinawa has 68 centenarians while Poland has only 11. What can we do to improve the statistics?

  1. Eat 9-17 small portions of vegetables and fruit a day.

  2. Eat 7-13 small portions of multigrain foods (all sorts of groats).

  3. Eat 2-4 portions of foods rich in calcium (leafy green vegetables, soy, seaweed, small amounts of dairy).

  4. Choose foods rich in flavonoids (2-4 portions a day) – you can find them in soy products, beans, black and green tea, or apples.

  5. Eat foods high in omega-3 (salmon, tuna or mackerel) twice a day.

  6. Drink lots of water and tea: as a Chinese poem says: “After the sixth cup of tea, I can hear the bells of immortality tolling.”

  7. No more than 20% of your diet should consist of meat (ideally zero, though); stewed meat is better for you than fried meat.

  8. Don’t drink alcohol.

  9. If your diet is low in vitamins C, E and folic acid, consider supplementation.

 

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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