According to the 2020 census by the Japanese Ministry of Health, the people of Okinawa live an average of 83.85 years (80.27 for men, 87.44 for women). Among every 100,000 people, there are 68 centenarians in Okinawa, more than three times the longevity found in U.S. populations of the same size. Not only that, people enjoy good health during their long lives. For example, the percentage of people that develop heart disease is 80 percent less than in the U.S.
What are the secrets to Okinawan’s health and longevity?
Since the sweet potato was introduced to Okinawa in the 17th century, it has been a staple food. Sweet potatoes are rich in antioxidants such as carotenes, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, Vitamin C, E, and lycopene. Okinawans eat sweet potatoes alongside vegetables such as bitter melon and beans. Meat and fish only constitute a small portion of their daily diet. Recent studies show that a 10:1 ratio of carbohydrates to proteins in a daily diet may protect the body from the harm of aging and prevent conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. This ratio matches that found in the Okinawan diet.
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Most Okinawans make their living by fishing or farming. Their everyday work results in exercise and breathing fresh air. They also get low-impact aerobic exercise by doing martial arts, traditional dance, and walking. Local doctors hold that this exercise gets them out of their homes and gives them a way to release their tension. Okinawans are primarily agile and nimble. Many of their centenarians can sit in the double lotus position (padmasana) for an extended period.
Active social life
Aged Okinawans also have active social lives. They talk with friends at tea houses every morning and evening and frequently serve as volunteers. Studies on centenarians show that helping others can lengthen one’s life, prevent diseases, and improve one’s immunity to a certain degree.
Dan Buettner, a specialist in elderly community studies, believes that the longevity found in Okinawa is associated with the idea of “ikigai,” a Japanese word meaning “reason for living.” After the elderly wake up, they ask themselves: “Why am I getting up?” then they set a goal for the day. Even relatively minor things, such as caring for their grandchildren, provide meaning to their daily lives.
There is a story that exemplifies ikigai. A woman in a village was dying. She was sent to the afterlife, and a voice asked: “Who are you?” She answered: “I am a mother of 4 children.” The voice replied: “I am not asking how many children you have. Who are you?” The woman said: “I am a teacher.” The voice continued: “I am not asking about your career. I am asking who you are.” At last, the woman said: “I get up every day to take good care of my family, and I go to school to develop children’s minds.” The voice was satisfied, and she was sent back to her life.
The next day when the woman woke up, she suddenly felt that her life had been given a new significance. She got up and prepared lunch for her children and redesigned the teaching programs for her class to make learning more interesting for her students. She had found her ikigai. Find your ikigai today to bring meaning to your life!
Translated by Audrey Wang