Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, has always been at the top of my Watson to-do list. Comprised of one main island and many smaller islands, it’s considered one of the healthiest places in the world – even healthier than the rest of Japan. It’s called a “Blue Zone” for being one of six regions in the world where people have extra-high life expectancies (https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/). Japan’s overall life expectancy is 80/87 male/female, already quite high, but in Okinawa those numbers reportedly stretch to 84/90. Of course, I’ve been curious for months to go there and see what, if anything, makes it feel remarkably healthy.
Also, as an American, I felt that it was important to go to Okinawa due to its complicated history with the US. For the 27 years following the end of World War II, Okinawa was under the occupation and rule of the US Military Government. Even though the US “returned” Okinawa to Japan in 1972, there are still many bases in the prefecture and thousands of US military personnel stationed there. When our plane landed in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, this became an immediate reality – though the little oval window, I saw military aircraft using the same airport as the commercial planes like ours.
So, when my host mom suggested a trip to Okinawa in the spring, of course I said yes! She said that she likes to go there for vacation. It was reassuring that Okinawa was her choice of destination – it confirmed the idea that this place is considered a rejuvenating, or even particularly healthy, area in Japan. I was thrilled to be able to tag along with my host family on their vacation to a spot I had learned about because of my project – and hopefully see it through that lens while I was there.
Many people, when answering my question of what makes Japan so healthy, say that it’s the diet. Okinawan food is Japanese food with an even healthier spin. At meals, my host mom pointed out “no calorie” and “no sugar” foods every so often. The food in Okinawa is all about fresh vegetables and fruits from the area, as well as seaweed and particularly protein-heavy tofu. In Tokyo, the fruit is imported and crazy expensive; the colder climate leads to a heavier reliance on meat, fish, rice, and potatoes.
My host mom described Okinawa as “practically a different country from Japan,” and it’s easy to see why – Okinawa is geographically distant from the rest of Japan and has also been politically separate from the country for most of its history. There’s even an Okinawan language (in addition to, and different from, the “Okinawan Japanese” dialect spoken in the prefecture).
In addition to the food, I’m sure that the relaxing lifestyle in Okinawa contributes to its health standard. In terms of what makes Japan unhealthy, I often hear people speak negatively about the work culture. Especially in Tokyo, people tend to work very long hours, and it seems like their main source of exercise is going up and down the metro stairs (which, to be fair, often involve multiple flights both ways). In Okinawa, and especially in Ishigaki, I saw none of that stressful urban work culture.
Okinawa seemed to have a lot in common with Hawaii, being the geographically distant island paradise state of its country (of course, there’s also the WWII connection). But Okinawa is supposed to be the epitome of health, whereas I never thought of Hawaii as being so healthy. I decided to check out where Hawaii falls on a list of all 50 states ranked by health. To my surprise, Hawaii wasn’t only in the top ten, but it was ranked #1! It’s held that ranking for the past 5 consecutive years, apparently the healthiest state in the US due to a number of different factors (with MA and CT following as 2nd and 3rd in 2016; from America’s Health Rankings 2016 report). So maybe there is something to island life in the Pacific. Certainly this longevity is not due to medical technology.