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Sunday, July 30, 2006


What's Japan's secret of 'many happy returns'?

Staff writer

Japan may never have become the world's No. 1 economy, and, faced with other rising Asian powers, it probably never will be. Nonetheless, there is one thing at which Japan proudly excels above all nations: its people's longevity.

Japanese are the longest-lived people in the world, logging an average life span of 81.9 years, according to a 2004 World Health Organization report. And in the nation's rapidly graying society, it's not hard to find people who are living proof of that longevity: More than one in five of the 126 million population are 65 or older. Of those, amazingly, more than a million are 90 or older.

Not only that, but perhaps at least as significantly, Japan's "healthy life expectancy" -- a WHO measure of how long people retain the ability to meet their daily needs, such as eating, dressing and going to the toilet unassisted -- also topped the global league table at 75 years on average.

Globally, Japan is trailed by Monaco, where people live 81.2 years on average, 72.9 of them healthily. Then comes San Marino, a 60-sq.-km country in eastern Italy where the average life span is 80.6 years, 73.4 of them healthy ones. Meanwhile, Australians may be Down Under, but they're not down and out on average until they're 80.4 years old, including 72.6 of them spent in good health, while the French manage 79.8 years, 72 of them in rude health. These compare with the 25th-ranked British, who span 78.2 years on average, 70.6 of them healthily, and Americans, who rank 27th and 29th with their average 77.3-year life span and 69.3-year healthy life expectancy.

Low-fat diet

So what's the Japanese secret? Is it in the genes?

Not so, according to Ichiro Tsuji, a professor of public health at Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine who researches healthy aging.

"Before the war, Japanese people lived for a much shorter time than Westerners did," he says. "It's only been in the last 20 years that they became the world's longest-living people."

Tsuji instead attributes Japan's longevity to the nation's typical healthy, low-fat diet, which is widely believed to result in a lower frequency of heart attacks and strokes than in other countries. Also, he points to the universal public health insurance system, which enables everyone to obtain medical care relatively cheaply: that, and the benefits of sewage system improvements after the war.

On closer inspection, according to Tsuji -- who was involved in a 1998 nationwide survey of people aged between 80 and 85 -- healthy seniors at an individual level were typically found to exhibit "12 habits." Those were:

* Eating three meals a day at regular times;
* Chewing their food well;
* Taking lots of fiber in their diet through vegetables and fruits;
* Drinking tea frequently;
* Not smoking;
* Having a home doctor;
* Being independent-minded;
* Enjoying activities that changed their mood;
* Reading newspapers;
* Watching television;
* Going out often; and
* Waking up and going to bed at regular times.

Tsuji is quick to warn, though, that things are not looking so rosy for future Japanese seniors. In fact, statistics for 2005 announced by the health ministry this week show that, while Japanese women were still the longest-lived in the world, their menfolk ranked only fourth -- having dropped out of the top three for the first time in 32 years.

Societal change

Tsuji points to the number of smokers, which has surged in the postwar period, and dietary habits, which have changed dramatically to include a far greater intake of high-fat foods such as meat. Today, more than half of Japanese men smoke -- the highest rate in the advanced world, and more than double the rate in the United States.

However, perhaps the societal change with the most potential to worsen the population's health prospects is the disappearance of community networks. With the passing of chonaikai (town associations), and the allied trend away from extended-family living to the nuclear model, the elderly are increasingly being deprived of a sense of security. Consequently, although official statistics do not exist, cases of seniors dying solitary deaths in their homes, especially in the cities, are widely reported.

Additionally, as Tsuji notes with concern, the long-standing Japanese cultural tradition of respecting the elderly "is rapidly dying out."

"I'm not sure if Japan will continue to enjoy its top-ranking longevity in the future," he says.

So, to pay respect to the nation's elderly -- and to get some insight on living a long and healthy life -- for this week's TIMEOUT, Japan Times reporters interviewed a remarkable trio of Japanese seniors comprising a record-breaking 70-year-old climber, a sailor recently returned, at age 72, from his seventh solo circumnavigation, and the 71-year-old "top female swimmer on the planet." Here, they share their stories on how to cope with aging and remain active, upbeat and positive all at the same time.

For other stories in our "Growing old healthily" package, please click the following links:

No mountain too high for oldest man ever to scale Everest By Eric Prideaux
Gran, 71, leaves world in her wake By Tomoko Otake
New horizons beckon legendary sailor By Eric L. Due

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