A closer look at the healthiest population on Earth
According to a 2019 life expectancy report, the average lifespan of the whole world is 72.6 years, but for Japan, it is 84.6 years. With more than 29% of its population over the age of 65, the Land of the Rising Sun is consistently recognized for its big community of healthy elders. On December 28, 2012, Jiroemon Kimura became the oldest verified male in history — he lived for 116 years and 54 days before dying from natural causes.
What’s the Japanese secret to maintaining good health for so many years? In Japan, it is no secret. In fact, everyone learns it at a young age. In their mandatory educational program, Japanese children are taught to eat a balanced diet, keep good hygiene, and exercise daily. Those habits, formed early, help establish a strong foundation for well-being.
I had my own experience in Japan. I wasn’t a tourist; I lived there. I ate what the Japanese around me ate, I drank what they drank, and I shared the same air. I lived my Japanese life as everyone else in the country does. It is easy to eat well and stay fit in each corner of this beloved nation. Here’s a peek at some of the fundamental cornerstones of well-being in Japan.
It’s nearly impossible to become a fast-food addict in Japan. Massive chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken have footprints in this country, but they don’t dominate the market. When you fancy a quick and nutritious meal, you have plenty of choices and are not forced to confront a cheeseburger or hot wings.
Either at home or in restaurants, Japanese people favor an adequate, well-proportioned, and nourishing meal. A Japanese diet is balanced physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Food is regarded as a gift from the land, the mountain, or the river. To enjoy a meal is to pay tribute to the one who prepared it. A set of fresh ingredients and a rule of 腹八分目(hara hachi bun me) are two of the principles for a Japanese balanced diet.
Surrounded by oceans, Japan is composed of four main islands. The territorial diversity with four distinct seasons allows Japanese farmers to nurture a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and animal products. Even with only 3% of employed citizens working as farmers, the Japanese agricultural industry still supplies more than 126 million people every day.
Thanks to their developed food industry, Japanese people can pick from various, vigorous, and vital ingredients coming from local farms to prepare their daily meals. Japan is famous for its food quality and superb ingredients.
Having a wholesome set of ingredients to draw from means the Japanese people are already halfway to success when it comes to following a healthy diet. With great freshness comes great nutrients, and certain elements play a critical role in the nutritive value of a Japanese meal.
Japanese seaweeds have a variety of forms, shapes, and origins. They contain almost no calories and lots of proteins. That’s why they are used in all kinds of Japanese dishes. Nori is used as a side dish, seasoning, sushi wrapper, and the key ingredient in broth. But the most important benefit from nori in Japanese cuisine is its high quantity of umami — the pleasant savory taste.
Easy to cultivate, inexpensive, and diverse in quality and quantity, nori is the number one pick when it comes to enriching the flavor of broths and sauces. If you are familiar with Japanese cuisine, you are likely familiar with miso soup (味噌汁) and ramen noodles (ラーメン). These two famous and symbolic dishes employ seaweeds in preparation of their broth.
The Japanese rule when it comes to eating is simple: Eat until you’re nearly full, and split your meal into smaller plates.
Fish is an iconic ingredient in modern Japanese cuisine. The island nation is already well known for its sushi and sashimi, but that’s not all Japan has to offer when it comes to fish. Without setting foot in Japan, you might think people eat sushi as their daily meal, but that’s not true. Japanese cuisine features many other popular dishes made from fish. Some of the most favored types of fish include mackerel, tuna, salmon, and unagi — Japanese eel.
Rich in omega-3 and omega-6, fish-based dishes are proven to be more nutrient-rich compared with their meat-based counterparts.
Soy comes in assorted and diversified structures: from tofu, miso, edamame (steamed and salted soybeans) to natto (Japanese fermented soybeans), soy sauce, and soy milk. Soybeans contain a lot of protein as well as good fat and carbohydrates. Soybeans are also easy to digest and offer a nutritious source of energy. A case study in Japan found that soybean-based foods can help reduce the risk of breast cancer.
腹八分目 — hara hachi bun me
This Japanese philosophy of eating means “80% full” or, more precisely, “eating until you’re 80% of your stomach.” How can eating 20% less help us maintain good health? The reason centers around the nature of habit.
Many people gain weight as a result of the habit of eating too much or too often. This not only puts one’s digestive system under pressure, but it further increases cancer risk and speeds up the overall aging process. When big (or even worse, mega) portions of unhealthy foods are on offer, eating them can become a hard habit to break.
The Japanese rule when it comes to eating is simple: Eat until you’re nearly full, and split your meal into smaller plates. The former is related to our ability to control ourselves, but the latter has to do with how we can unconsciously alter our habit without suffering any psychological difficulties.
These guidelines trick us into eating less and less. Our instinct might force us to finish whatever is left on our plate, no matter the size. By limiting the amounts of food we serve ourselves to begin with, we tend to stop before hitting maximum capacity. Another trick is to eat with chopsticks. It is somehow harder to indulge when we serve our mouths only a small piece of food at a time.
Okinawa is a far-off island in the south of Japan. Despite being a small territory with a population of 1.5 million, Okinawa’s average life expectancy is the highest in Japan. Okinawan people follow rigorously the hara hachi bun me. Their diet also features a lot of whole-grain foods and local vegetables.
Ikigai (生き甲斐) is a Japanese concept of a “reason for being.” In short, it’s the mental state of four elements: what you love, what the world needs, what you are good at, and what you can be paid for. There’s no exact number of people who reach the sweet spot of ikigai or people who are nearly there. The essence of ikigai is to find your life purpose, your reason for existing, and your motivation to get out of bed every single day.
Scientists have conducted several studies to understand further why it is that people with a sense of purpose tend to live a longer and healthier life. A rigorous study administered by the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) on almost 7,000 U.S. adults attempted to find the association between life purpose and mortality.
In the above 2006 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of researchers found a positive correlation between having a purpose in life and a decreased mortality rate. People who know their direction, intention, and objective experience less anxiety, fatigue, and negative effects on the nervous system. The science at work here is still emerging, but generations of Japanese people have practiced—and benefited from—ikigai. It is considered a key pillar to building and sustaining a happy and fulfilled life.
Life starts as a blank page, and ikigai tells us to fill in the core elements: what we’re good at, what we love, what the world needs, and what we can be paid for. Of course, there is no deadline to submit the answers. Each person’s answers will inevitably differ, and, of course, there are no right answers. It’s the journey that counts. We write our own lives with our adventures, joys, losses, and unique perspectives. The philosophy behind ikigai claims that our life purposes await us at the end of that journey.
When I first visited Japan, I noticed temples and pagodas nearly everywhere I went. This gave me an initial impression of Buddhism as dominant. But it turns out that major religions — including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — play only a minor role in Japan. Japanese people mainly practice Shinto — the kami-no-michi religion, or the religion of nature.
I am not a religious scholar, but it seems to me that with Shinto, Japanese people worship every small thing in nature; a rock, a river, and a tree branch all possess an inner spirit that Japanese people call kami. According to Shintoism, each living thing has its individuality, but it is not separated from others. We are all part of a continuous, collective life current, and we live our lives in pursuit of that flow.
With ikigai, Japanese people seek a sense of inner peace, and by respecting Mother Nature, they pray for an outer harmony. These two simultaneous flows help to bring about a balanced state of vitality.
If we look to understand what exactly keeps Japanese people on a straight line to longevity, it’s highly likely that these fundamentals contribute to shoring up the public health and vitality of one of the healthiest countries in the world.