Sunday, October 27, 2013

Okinawa's Secrets of Longevity (Part 1) - Not Just Living Longer, But Better

Ah Japan. I love the country. It's a running joke that I go to Japan more often than I go to Jurong (on the west side of Singapore). But one part of Japan has been extra special - the islands of Okinawa, and its wonderful people. Okinawa is special in the way it will change you, and leave an indelible mark. That's what travel should do. You come back with renewed insight and ideally greater wisdom for living.

During my first trip to Okinawa last year, I got first hand look at their diet and liked it very much - it was healthy food that was actually tasty. I started making changes at home to my family's diet too. More vegetables, less meat, more seaweed and tofu products.

Then this year, I got a chance to visit Okinawa again. I was very lucky the Okinawa Tourist Service invited me to join a trip specially tailored for a group of gerontology students from UniSIM who wanted to explore the longevity that Okinawans have become famous for. These students are such good souls, from all walks of life, who have dedicated their time or interest in helping the elderly live better lives.


Okinawa is designated as one of the Blue Zones, longevity hotspots identified and researched by journalist Dan Buettner in a partnership with National Geographic. Singapore is also one of the top 10 countries for life expectancy, so we are naturally interested in how other countries cope with similar elderly populations.

Dan has found that those who live long and healthy in the blue zones unanimously live low stress, happy lives enriched with strong family ties, a sense of purpose, and a healthy dose of spirituality, and plenty of sleep. He counts Okinawa as "ground zero" - the most impressive disability-free longevity in the world.

Okinawa has some of the highest number of centenarians in the world (about 50 per 100,000 population). Amazingly, dementia is rare, and other ailments like Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease are almost unheard of. Yes, sure, there are cases of stroke, heart attacks but these tend to happen very late in life. Like in their 90s.

The elderly folks there not only live long lives, but happy, active and fulfilling ones. They continue dancing well into their 80s and 90s.

Watch this endearing documentary about the active elders in Okinawa, and the factors contributing to their longevity.

Harvard researcher Dr Bradley Wilcox speaks at length about factors contributing Okinawan longevity, especially foodwise.

I've been reading up books and studies on the topic myself, and several things keep coming up:

Observations about Okinawa

Apart from the wonderful climate (subtropical island paradise?) that enable Okinawans to be active all year round, it's these lifestyle choices that keep them going well into the 100s.

1. Follow a healthy and largely plant-based diet
No surprise here. The Okinawan diet has gotten quite a lot of attention in the West recently. They eat grains, tubers, fresh vegetables (a lot of "goya" or bittergourd!) and herbs (many with health benefits), soy products, more tofu and seaweed than anyone else in the world. Citrus fruits (like "shikuwasa", akin to sweet limes) also figure strongly. Fish and pork are consumed but sparingly. Grandmothers still tend their own vegetable patches in the garden, growing food the organic way. They also don't overeat - they stop when they are 80 per cent full, following the "Hara hachi bu" adage.

2. Get quality sleep 
They do like to sleep, even in summer when daylight hours are long. Still, Okinawans don't necessarily sleep more than Japanese mainlanders, but they sleep better. There are less interruptions and sleep disorders. How do you get quality sleep? I guess that's where the rest of your life needs to be in order.

3. Be social involved
Okinawans have a social network or "moai", friends that you travel through life with. Often these are friends from neighbourhoods or primary school. They will take care of each other in times of trouble, and share in celebrations too. Like the Chinese, they also practice tontine. This support network allows a greater sense of security and less stress. Probably better than Facebook.

4. Keep strong family ties
Okinawa families remain tight-knit and close, even though they may not stay in the same home. The elders often stress that they want to be independent, and not rely on the youngsters. There is also a culture of respect for elderly, largely from Confucian influence brought over by the Chinese. This helps the elderly keep emotionally well as each advancing year is seen as gaining honour.

5. Stay active
Be continually involved in work that is meaningful. Many Okinawans choose to work til they are in their 60s and 70s. The word retirement does not exist in Okinawan language. When they do "retire", they continue being active in other forms like volunteerism or teaching. I checked with the NTUC what the situation is like for older workers in Singapore, as I know this is quite an issue here.

In Singapore, we can retire at 62, or be re-employed from 62 to 65 years of age. The Labour Movement through Mr. Heng Chee How is pushing this upper age limit to be extended to 67 years so that older staff can still remain active at work if they want to.

It’s also good that the unions are working closely with employers in Singapore to make workplaces age-friendly and jobs easier, smarter and safer. This allows older staff to continue performing their jobs in a safe and healthy environment, and if not, this is where the bargaining power of the union for its members comes in. Hmm, I wonder if I will still be writing at 65...I certainly hope so.

6. Stay active physically 
Interestingly, the Okinawans don't specifically exercise. But they do keep busy. There's minimal furniture at home, and they get up from the tatami mats many times a day - this builds lower body strength. Many of them keep a herb and vegetable garden, which gives them physical exercise and sunlight exposure for Vitamin D.

7. Have an "ikigai" 
That means the reason for waking up every morning. Yes, that critical sense of purpose that propels you in life.

8. Maintain a spiritual anchor 
Many Okinawans practice ancestor veneration. They lay their worries at the ancestor altars, and pray for guidance. It's not so much about religion but a healthy dose of spirituality.

9. Be psychologically resilient 
Life isn't about having it easy but how you respond to tough times. Okinawa is the site of many gruelling battles, and many of the elderly have been through the horrors of war. But the survivors not only are able to keep going despite an impoverished life, hardship and loss. On top of that, many have been able to practise forgiveness and look forward to peace instead.

10. Stay positive and relaxed! 
Okinawans embrace a positive outlook in life. They love the saying "Nan kuru nai sa" 難来る無いさ- no hardship will come. It will all be okay!

This sums up the cheerful outlook in Okinawa

Ultimately, it's about taking care of the body, mind and soul.

In part 2, I will explore the various places and facilities we visited on the trip.

Ogimi Village and Emi no Mise
Kariyushi Longevity University
Churayuntanza Nursing Home and Utopia
Prefectural Karate Museum
Himeyuri Peace Memorial Museum

Many thanks to Dennis Tortona from the Okinawa Tourist Service for making this trip possible. If you are keen on including such special interest aspects in a tour, please feel free to contact them for assistance. Call +81 98-859-8887 or email  


  1. Very insightful. Very educational. Thanks for sharing this post with everybody. The point on being psychologically resilient strikes a chord in me because Okinawa has always been a site of power contestation and the people tend to be marginalized by the rest of the Japanese society. I look forward to reading the second half of your trip! :)

    1. Thanks! Yes, that's one of the points that struck me too. Longevity doesn't happen because life is easy and without suffering. It's the way we handle what comes our way. I like their attitude and strength of character.


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