With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 years for women, Okinawans are among the world's longest lived people. More important, elders living in this lush subtropical archipelago tend to enjoy years free from disabilities. Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the breast and prostate cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans, says Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study.
What's the key to their success? "Ikigai certainly helps," Willcox offers. The word translates roughly to "that which makes one's life worth living." Older Okinawans, he says, possess a strong sense of purpose that may act as a buffer against stress and diseases such as hypertension. Many also belong to a Okinawan-style moai, a mutual support network that provides financial, emotional, and social help throughout life.
A lean diet may also be a factor. "A heaping plate of Okinawan vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and a little fish or meat will have fewer calories than a small hamburger," says Makoto Suzuki of the Okinawa Centenarian Study. "And it will have many more healthy nutrients." What's more, many Okinawans who grew up before World War II never developed the tendency to overindulge. They still live by the Confucian-inspired adage "hara hachi bu—eat until your stomach is 80 percent full."
And they grow much of their own food. Taking one look at the gardens kept by Okinawan centenarians, Greg Plotnikoff, a traditional-medicine researcher at the University of Minnesota, called them "cabinets of preventive medicine." Herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables, such as Chinese radishes, garlic, scallions, cabbage, turmeric, and tomatoes, he said, "contain compounds that may block cancers before they start."
Ironically, for many older Okinawans this diet was born of hardship. Ushi Okushima grew up barefoot and poor. Her family scratched a living out of Ogimi's rocky terrain, growing sweet potatoes, which formed the core of every meal. To celebrate the New Year, her village butchered a pig, and everyone got a morsel of pork.
During World War II, when U.S. warships shelled Okinawa, Ushi and Setsuko, whose husbands had been conscripted into the Japanese Army, fled to the mountains with their children. "We experienced terrible hunger," Setsuko recalls.
Ushi now wakes every morning at six and eats a small breakfast of milk, bananas, and tomatoes. Until very recently she grew most of her food (she gave up gardening when she took a job). But her tradition-honored daily rituals haven't changed: morning prayers to her ancestors, tea with friends, lunch with family, an afternoon nap, a sunset social hour with friends, and before bed a cup of sake infused with the herb mugwort. "It helps me sleep," she says.
Back in Ushi's house we're finishing our tea. Outside, dusk is falling; rain patters on the roof. Ushi's daughter, Kikue, who is 78 and finds little amusement in the attention her mother draws, shoots me a glare that I take to mean "you've overstayed your welcome." (When Ushi ran away from home, she was actually fleeing an argument with Kikue. She packed a bag and boarded a bus without telling her daughter. A relative caught up with her in a town 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) away.)
Ushi, Setsuko, and Matsu take the cue and fall silent in unison. These women have shared each other's fortunes and endured each other's sorrows for nearly a century and now seem to communicate wordlessly.