Surrounded by bucolic scenery and delicious, healthful food, it’s no wonder people live to a ripe old age in this subtropical Japanese archipelago.
It’s the middle of a weekday afternoon on Tokunoshima, one of Japan’s secluded Ryukyu Islands, and a party is raging on the front porch of a rural home. There’s singing and dancing and laughter as everyone downs shochu shots with beer chasers. But what makes this bash different than anything I’ve attended before is the fact that I’m the only person under the age of 90. It’s like a geriatric version of spring break, with ancient revelers instead of rowdy college kids. And apparently this is not a rare occurrence. “We’re out here every day,” says 98-year-old Seiji Masano, pouring me another glassful of the local shochu, distilled from the sugarcane that flourishes in these islands.
A former schoolteacher, Masano gives me a lesson about the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05, for those of you who aren’t history buffs) before turning to the subject of aging. “I really haven’t thought a lot about why we live so long here,” she says. “All I know is that I don’t like to stay still. I want to finish my life being active, not tired in a bed. Cultivating the fields is my joy, harvesting sweet potatoes. Drinking beer in the afternoon and shochu at night. And dancing! Never stop dancing—that’s my advice.”
It’s the kind of advice you hear throughout the Ryukyus, a string of subtropical islands between Kyushu and Taiwan that are home to a preponderance of the world’s longest-lived people. Indeed, the archipelago boasts more centenarians than anywhere else on the planet, as well as two former Guinness record holders who reached the mind-boggling ages of 116 and 120.
I ventured to the islands to meet some of these venerable folk and perhaps learn their secrets for living to such advanced ages. What I didn’t expect is that the ultra-oldsters I encountered during my journey would have such a profound and lasting effect on me—would get me thinking that I really should be much more like them. Not to extend my lifespan per se, but to make sure that I’m just as alert, active, and jolly should I be lucky enough to reach 80, 90, or the elusive century mark.
My first landfall is Okinawa, an island about twice the size of Singapore with more than a million people and several U.S. military bases that have been here since the end of World War II. Perched right above the Tropic of Cancer, Okinawa is a subtropical nirvana of palm-shaded beaches, serene bays, and one of the world’s most northerly coral reefs. Whether the easy climate and pristine environment (pollution is scant, and farming is predominantly organic) underlie the islanders’ longevity is yet to be determined. But there seem to be plenty of other factors that make life expectancy here even higher than on mainland Japan.
Right off the bat I meet my first elder, a lady happily making fish cakes in a stall at the Makishi Public Market in Naha, the island capital. “I’m 94 but still healthy,” she laughs. “I think it’s because I still work every day. I’ve been working here for more than 50 years, and I look forward to it every day—not so much the work itself, but talking to all the customers. If you just sit around at home, you’ll go senile.”
Naha is also the home of Dr. Makoto Suzuki, a leading expert on aging, his office packed floor to ceiling with files on the 900 centenarians who currently live in Okinawa. Born and raised in Tokyo, Suzuki came to the island in the 1970s as a cardiologist and was astounded by how many of his patients were more than 100 years old. It wasn’t long before he was compiling records on their diet, exercise, and other factors. Suzuki’s part-time hobby evolved into a full-time longevity study with a couple of Canadian researchers and a New York Times bestseller, The Okinawa Program, to its credit.
“There are so many aspects, so many factors,” Suzuki says when I ask him why the islanders live so long. We talk at length about the obvious things—their healthy diet and lifelong daily exercise—before drifting into the intangibles that seem to have such an acute effect on how long (and well) we live, factors that Suzuki calls self-help and mutual help. “In Japan, we say that a person must have a reason to live so long. It can be many different things: being an active member of your family or community rather than living in isolation; working far beyond when you are expected to retire and having some kind of spiritual life, like ancestor worship. These things keep not just your mind but also your body healthy.”