In the village of Ogimi, located in the rural north of Okinawa’s main island, there’s a small stone marker with a few sentences written in Japanese. Roughly translated, they read: “At 80, you are merely a youth. At 90, if your ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100—then, you might consider it.”
That’s not bluster. At the latest count, 15 of Ogimi’s 3,000 villagers are centenarians. One hundred and seventy-one are in their 90s. Even in Japan, which currently has more than 70,000 people aged 100 or over, that’s a remarkable statistic.
Before COVID-19, travelers were beginning to take notice. Masataka Nozato at Ogimi Village Office says the town, far removed from the tourist trail, had started to see a slight increase in visitors curious about Okinawan longevity.
An island located south of mainland Japan, Okinawa is one of five places around the world that author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner calls a “blue zone,” where he says people live the longest, happiest lives. Others include Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. Though travel to Okinawa and any blue zone is on hold for many, these towns offer lessons about surviving and thriving during difficult times, such as a pandemic.
“Every longevity culture in the world suffered periods of hardships,” Buettner told TODAY. “They went through wars, famines, the same sorts of stresses that we’re suffering right now, and that’s a lesson for all of us.”
What can Okinawans tell us? Why does Ogimi and elsewhere on the island have a history of long life? That comes down to three main factors—diet, social practices, and genetics—explains Craig Willcox, a professor of public health and gerontology at Okinawa International University and a co-principal investigator of the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which has been investigating Okinawan longevity since 1975.
“About two-thirds of longevity is related to diet and way of life, the rest is genetics. Generally speaking, you need the genetic rocket booster if you want to get into the hundreds, not just a good diet,” Willcox says. “We haven’t looked into whether or not Okinawa has a genetic advantage over other parts of Japan, but longevity does run in families here.”
Food as medicine
Genetics aside, diet more easily identifies how locals stand apart. If you go to a typical Okinawa-themed restaurant in Tokyo or a touristy one in Okinawa, the menu is pork heavy and the alcohol is as strong as it gets in Japan. Awamori, the fiery regional spirit, weighs in at an ABV of 40 percent. But that’s not representative of island habits.
In terms of preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease, the Okinawan diet gives more than five servings a day of fruits and vegetables and incorporates more heart-healthy fish than meat, says Willcox.
“There’s an Okinawan phrase, nuchi gusui, which can translate as ‘let food be your medicine,’” he notes. “The sweet potatoes, bitter melon, carotenoid-rich marine foods like seaweeds, green leafy vegetables, and fruit in the diet are anti-aging as they reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.”
“The traditional Okinawan diet is also nutritionally dense, yet calorie poor, and that’s ideal,” Willcox continues, adding that sweet potato rather than white rice was the staple in Okinawa up until the 1960s.
“If you calorie-restrict mammals in a lab, they live longer pretty much across the board,” he says. “A persistent energy deficit triggers a self-preservation mode—you adapt to convert a higher proportion of food into usable energy and turn on enzymes that promote longevity.”
Looking after each other
Life on the islands is different from much of the rest of Japan. The climate is sub-tropical, with mild winters. Okinawans live amid scenic island beauty and have a reputation for being mellow; the laidback approach to punctuality here is known as “Okinawa time.”
Society is structured so older residents retain purpose, or ikigai, in their lives. Giving some in Ogimi an ikigai is the local craft of weaving basho-fu textiles, where the time-intensive cleaning of fibers and spooling of thread is done by groups of older women. It’s not just a way to remain socially active; it gives the weavers a way to supplement their income and contribute to the village economy. Naturally, the basho-fu center is run by a 98-year-old from a family full of centenarians.
Then there’s the way society stresses mutual support through moai. This Okinawan social mechanism brings groups of people with a shared interest together, allowing them to develop emotional connections. Buettner says that’s a crucial element to living a long life, noting that “loneliness is as bad for you as smoking.”
Takashi Inafuku, head of one of Ogimi’s districts, belongs to two moai—one with a group of school friends and another with former co-workers. “They are places where you can exchange information and communicate with others,” he says. “I think that participating in moai, having a common hobby and releasing stress, can help promote longevity.”
Willcox notes that belonging to multiple moai is common. “I know one man in Ogimi who is in seven,” he says. “And people are loyal to their moai; I met a group of 80-year-old women on an outlying island who had been in a moai together since they were in elementary school. I’m in one, too—our common interest is slow food.”
That support and stress release is especially important during these pandemic times. With 2,740 COVID-19 cases in Okinawa as of October 12, many moai are adapting. The new moai normal emphasizes face masks, hand sanitizers, and avoiding what the government calls the “three Cs” (closed spaces, close contact settings, and crowded places).
In addition to the precautions, some moai are going online and maybe even global. The term moai is spreading outside Japan to community initiatives, such as neighborhood walking groups and virtual club meetings that help people stay in touch.
Other ideas include taking a language class for future travel and joining an online dance class. Sites like Beach Cities Health District’s free online moai starter kit offers a guide for launching a moai on any common interest—blue zone food or awamori appreciation included.
Rob Goss is a Tokyo-based travel writer whose pre-COVID-19 trips around Japan saw him meditating under a chilly waterfall with yamabushi monks and attempting to interview the cat credited with saving a railway. Follow him on Instagram.