Japan: what explains the decline in life expectancy for Okinawans? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

For generations, the people of Okinawa Prefecture in Japan have enjoyed the reputation of being among the longest-lived humans on the planet.

Medical experts and gerontologists flocked to these semi-tropical islands off southern Japan in search of the secret to the locals’ longevity, with most concluding that it was a combination of a diet nutritious food, regular exercise and support from family and the wider community.

Today, however, that is changing. And while the wider Japanese population is living longer than ever, Okinawans are starting to die earlier. And the blame is pinned on the younger generations who are turning their backs on the old way of life in the islands.

In 1980, Okinawa had the highest average life expectancy for both males and females, with males generally expected to reach at least 84 and females up to 90.

Life expectancy is decreasing

But that enviable record began to slip. In 1990, the average male life expectancy in Okinawa was only the fifth highest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and by 2020 it had fallen to 36th on the list. Okinawan women topped the prefectural list until 2005, but fell to seventh place in 2020.

In the 2020 census, conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Okinawan men lived to an average age of 80.27 years and women 87.44 years.

Makoto Suzuki takes a keen interest in the subject; he is 89 years old and has studied the reasons for the longevity of his fellow islanders all his life.

“Okinawa people’s life expectancy is declining quite rapidly and we think the problem is that young people haven’t followed in the footsteps of previous generations,” said Suzuki, who still works part-time as a cardiologist. clinic and is co-founder of the Naha-based Okinawa Research Center for Longevity Sciences.

“Okinawa people have been influenced by the food and lifestyle choices of other societies, especially that of the United States,” he told DW.

Since Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, Okinawa has been home to a large number of American military bases and tens of thousands of soldiers. A culture of fast food and television rather than physical exercise has rubbed off on the local population, he said, and the results are now visible.

“Generally, the Okinawan diet included lots of vegetables, local fruits, dishes such as ‘tofu’, fish and meat, albeit in small portions,” he said. , adding: “When I was little, we ate meat about once a week. and it’s a habit that I have kept to this day.”

“When I was younger, I also did a lot of walking, climbing and archery, but I don’t do that much now, mainly because I don’t have time for those hobbies.

The importance of ikegami

“I also believe that the concept of ‘ikegai’ is important to our lives, especially among older people,” Suzuki said, referring to the traditional idea of ​​a person’s reason for living.

“My work at the hospital is very busy and it’s my ikegai,” he said. “It is important for me to help sick people and I don’t consider them as my patients, I consider them as my friends. But being with them also helps me because isolation and loneliness are very dangerous for people. elderly.

“My wife died two years ago, so now I often go to the hospital at night to be with other people because my friends are there.”

Tomoko Owan, an associate professor at the Ryukyus University School of Medicine, agrees that outside influences have had a negative impact on the well-being of the islanders.

“Okinawa is known to be a place where people live well into old age, but that started to change in the years after the war,” she said. “People from overseas moved here and they brought their own culture with them. Slowly the local people mixed with these newcomers and our diet and traditions changed.”

Food is one big thing that has changed, she says, but there are others.

karate lessons

“It was an island society where family and community were always very important,” she said. “It was peaceful and in the past people had little stress.”

A rural backwater in years gone by, many Okinawans have recently embraced the “hurry up” approach to life that is more associated with mainland Japanese, Owan pointed out, while increasing work commitments mean that ‘there’s less time for relaxation, for friends and family, and for a person’s hobbies.

Karate is closely associated with Okinawa, and to this day many older Okinawa residents practice this martial art. Owan herself teaches karate at her university and says it’s an indispensable part of her daily exercise routine. It is, she stresses, a workout for body, mind and soul.

Still, Okinawan’s younger generations seem content with their current lifestyle, even if that means they’re unlikely to live as long as their grandparents.

“It’s the modern Japanese lifestyle,” said Shuhei Kohagura, a 39-year-old official with the prefectural tourism agency, admitting he does a lot of overtime at work every week, eats a snack to a local convenience store for lunch and after-work drinking with co-workers.

“I grew up with this lifestyle, so it’s comfortable for me now, although I complain about being too busy most of the time,” he said. “The traditional way of life here may seem attractive, but I think it would be very difficult for me to adapt to it, as it is so different from anything I have become accustomed to.”

Pointing out that his own mother lived to be 105, Suzuki stressed that he intended to continue working as a doctor for as long as possible.

“I think young people in Okinawa haven’t learned from their elders,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because they don’t live that long, but our society has undergone serious changes in a short time.”

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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