Why Do Japanese People Live So Long?
May 26, 2014

Why Do Japanese People Live So Long?

Japanese people are renowned and envied for having a long life expectancy. The world’s oldest living person is Misao Okawa, at 116 years of age. She replaced Jiroemon Kimura, who died in 2013 and who is the record holder for the longest living man in history. Two of the three oldest men still alive today are Japanese, and Japanese life expectancy overall is higher than in the West, with the country having spent most of the last 25 years at the top of the list.

Like in most other parts of the world, women in Japan live longer than men. But I would have expected the difference to be even greater, considering the lifestyle that I see Japanese men leading all around me. The famous commitment to work for the Japanese office worker — or ‘salaryman’ — looks grueling enough, even from a distance, which I keep with my guiltily low number of teaching hours. Commuter trains are much busier at 9 or 10pm than they are at 5pm.

That said, although Japanese office workers do very often work late into the night, those commuter trains never fail to hit you with the stench of alcohol as soon as you board, and so some of the suited folk have obviously not come straight from the office. The drinking culture that comes with the Japanese workplace is not necessarily just a release from stress, though. It is part of the work, too, and exhausted staff may be expected to go for drinks, even if they don’t want to. And, of course, drinking must only add to the detrimental effect on health that overwork has, as will the astonishingly high levels of smoking among Japanese men.

Yet life expectancy for Japanese men is still very high. The broad conclusion may be that stress, drinking and smoking may be balanced with positive elements in other aspects of lifestyle, although the lie that some of us occasionally tell ourselves that we can drink 14 beers a day as long as we eat an apple is a risky one. One positive element is diet, and healthy eating is ingrained in Japanese culture more than it is in our own. Fish is a huge part of the diet because Japan is, of course, a series of islands, and also because land space for producing meat is limited. The mountainous nature of Japan (70 percent is mountains) means not only that space is limited, but also that traditional transport infrastructure was slow to develop, leaving people eating fresh, local food. The mountains also meant that sourcing fuel for cooking was difficult, hence the Japanese tendency towards raw food, including vegetables – which is also obviously very healthy.

Regular portions of tofu, seaweed and other foods more common in East Asia than in the West add to the health benefits that eating unprocessed food brings. Habits are changing, with Western food becoming more popular and school kids flocking to McDonald’s at lunchtime, so we may see this negatively affecting life expectancy in future. But, for now, it is safe to say that diet plays a big role in Japanese health.

So, too, does healthcare. The extent to which healthcare should be privatized is an endless debate, with most European countries having a largely public health system and the US having a big private element. Japan has a mix of the two, where insurance is almost universal and a uniformly reasonable amount is paid like a tax, entitling people to pay only 30 percent of fees, or less if their circumstances mean they struggle to pay even that. This system, whereby public healthcare is not under constant strain as in Europe, nor are people potentially facing huge fees for small things as in the US, means that regular health screening is common. Checking if people have issues before they come to a doctor with severe symptoms seems like common sense medicine, but is somehow elusive for many in the West.

Diet and healthcare aside, there is a theory that long life is genetic, with some experts estimating that heredity elements make up a third of all that dictates the length of our life. This may be supported by the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, which has an even higher life expectancy than the rest of Japan among its relatively small population. The diet there is fantastic, too, as is the climate. Furthermore, Japanese people say that ‘Okinawa time’ is different than the rest of the country because the pace of life is relaxed, and people will usually show up 30 minutes late for meetings and appointments. On the island, life is more outdoor-based, with people less cooped up in offices all day like the rest of Japan, or indeed much of the world.

According to the Daily Express, the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which looked at why people in Okinawa live so long, said, “We believe the Okinawans have both genetic and non-genetic longevity advantages – the best combination. The Okinawan traditional way of life – the dietary habits, the physical activity, the psychological and social aspects – all play an important role in Okinawan longevity.”

In the search for long life, then, it seems there are some things we can change and some we can’t. Some things we can copy from Japan, and others less so. But regular health screening and unprocessed, fresh food should be basic elements of life in any society, in my opinion.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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