The Peculiar Response Japanese Centenarians Give When You Ask Them What They Eat
I was recently reminded of Japan’s high longevity rate when I came across a headline in The Japan Times: “Centenarians top 80,000 for first time.” According to information released by Japan’s health ministry in July, Japan’s average life expectancy was 87.45 for women and 81.41 for men in 2019, a record number.
Japanese centenarians fascinate me, and the advice they give to reach longevity is always a fun read, but the truth is that I’ve never felt the need to live to 100 unless I knew I would be with a sound mind and strong body. I didn’t want to be 100 and on tons of medication or be bedridden and unable to go outside — it’s not just life expectancy, but healthy life expectancy.
I did some reading on the idea of a healthy life expectancy and was pleasantly surprised to discover that according to the Japan Cabinet Office’s 2018 Annual Report on the Aging Society, about 70 percent of people aged 60–69 and about 50 percent of those 70 and over are either working or engaged in volunteer activity, community activity (e.g. neighborhood association, local events), or a hobby. I see this in my day-to-day life as well: a large population of seniors who remain active, healthy, and young by all other measures aside from age. They’re my family and my neighbors, and I see them traveling, going out, and enjoying an active life well into their 70s and 80s.
A separate study on Japanese centennials living in Okinawa, where the researcher went back and analyzed at what age these individuals were able to live independently (cook for themselves, do their own house chores, live in their own home, among other factors), came to another fascinating discovery: The study was only on 22 individuals, but among them, 82 percent were still independent at a mean age of 92 and about two-thirds at a mean age of 97. Okinawa isn’t even the prefecture with the highest longevity rate in Japan (it’s Nagano).
‘I eat everything. And I especially like sweets.’ — Motoi Fukunishi, one of the oldest men in Japan, living until 110.
Of course, when you meet a centenarian, there’s a question that crosses everyone’s mind:
“What’s your secret to a healthy diet for a long and happy life?”
As I looked up interviews and read some articles in Japanese, I noticed the most peculiar pattern among responses from some notable centennials:
- “Eating delicious things and sleeping well.” — Nabi Tajima, who was born on August 4, 1900, and lived to be 117.
- “Eating delicious things is a key to my longevity.” — Misao Okawa, the world’s oldest living person until she passed away in 2015 at the age of 117. She also revealed that she ate lots of sushi and slept for eight hours every day.
- “I eat everything. And I especially like sweets.” — Motoi Fukunishi, one of the oldest men in Japan, living until 110.
It was this focus on foods that they loved — they didn’t say foods that were low in fat, high in fiber, or devoid of sugar. They didn’t even credit vegetables, whole grains, or a diet composed of mainly grilled fish. It was terms such as “like” and “delicious” that they used to describe the kind of diet that carried them for over 100 years.
It was terms such as ‘like’ and ‘delicious’ that they used to describe the kind of diet that carried them for over 100 years.
When we talk about a healthy diet it’s tempting to refer to nutrition science and just credit whole foods, colorful vegetables, and healthy fats to live well and call that information enough. If we were robots or computer algorithms, it would be enough, and eating well would be easy. But humans are more complicated than this because food is not just what builds, nourishes, and heals our bodies, but it plays a profound role in our identity, our culture, our relationships with others, how we see ourselves, and how we experience joy. It’s why at the end of the day, those who live well see eating well not just as a daily chore, but as a joyful part of their life.
This is what I believe to be central to the key to eating well, and a lesson from my elders that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my years.