Group of japanese friends visiting kyoto

What are the secrets behind Japanese longevity?


Face it – the appeal of Japanese culture in pop culture is truly difficult to resist. With travel put on hold, and trips to Japan not seem likely in the near future, perhaps it’s time to find out if we can bring Japan here instead, by embodying some of the good traits of its culture.

Japan has one of the longest life expectancies on earth, and it is also a global leader in “balanced life expectancy,” the total number of years of good health people can expect.

The average lifetime is 72.6 years, but for Japan, it is 84.6 years, according to a 2019 life expectancy survey.

The Land of the Rising Sun is consistently remembered for its large group of active older citizens with more than 29 percent of its population over the age of 65. Jiroemon Kimura became the oldest confirmed man in history on December 28, 2012, having lived for 116 years and 54 days before dying from natural causes. (Although we take note that the oldest person verified by modern standards was French woman Jeanne Calment aged 122 years, 164 days.)

As of August 2014, as recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest man and woman in the world, sitting at 111 and 116, respectively, are both Japanese.

What are the secrets of long lives?

Though there have been several studies on this topic, a strong causal relationship has not been made clear. Here are three secrets that relate to good health and are assumed to be some of the explanations for the survival of the Japanese people.

1. Diet

Becoming a fast-food addict in Japan is almost impossible. In this region, massive chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken have footprints, but do not dominate the market.

people standing near restaurant chain
Photo by Robi Pastores on

When it is said and gone, a healthy diet is one of the biggest factors thought to be a source of longevity.

Here are three key aspects of Japanese meals:

  • balanced diet
  • servings should be moderate – 腹八分目 — hara hachi bun me
  • meals should have fresh ingredients

Balanced diet

The distinctive style of Japanese meals is based on one soup and three vegetables, with rice as the centre, providing an outstanding nutritious balance. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has reported that one of the reasons that improve Japanese longevity is the low-fat, low-calorie typical Japanese meal.

Eating moderately – 腹八分目 — hara hachi bun me

In the Edo period, the term “moderate eating” became popular in Japan. “Eat moderately” in Japan means that you feed until your stomach feels as though it’s 4/5ths full instead of eating until you’re full, then stop. It is said to be beneficial for longevity and wellness.

As a consequence of the habit of eating too fast or too much, many people gain weight. This not only brings the digestive tract under pressure, but also raises the risk of cancer and accelerates the overall ageing process. When big (or even worse, mega) portions of unhealthy foods are on offer, eating them can become a hard habit to break.

Dr. Daisuke Koya Of The Kanazawa Medical University Hospital

It’s understood that the continuation of the dietary habit of eating until one is 70% full is good for one’s health and extends life span. If you decrease your daily calorie intake by 25%, the resting sirtuin proteins will be activated and they will hold back various aging causes.

— Dr. Daisuke Koya of the Kanazawa Medical University Hospital

Fresh Ingredients

Japan, surrounded by seas, consists of four major islands. The territorial variety of four separate seasons enables a wide range of vegetables, fruits and animal products to be nurtured by Japanese farmers. The Japanese farming industry already feeds over 126 million people every day, even though just 3 percent of employed residents serve as farmers.

Japanese people can pick from various, vigorous, and vital ingredients coming from local farms to prepare their daily meals. Japan is famous for its food quality and superb ingredients. Great nutrients come with great freshness, and those components play a vital role in a Japanese meal’s nutritional value.

Top ingredients with nutrients:

  • Nori (海苔)

There are a number of forms, sizes, and roots of Japanese seaweed. There are mostly calorie-free and contain plenty of proteins in them. That is why they are used in Japanese dishes of all sorts. Nori is used as a side sauce, as a seasoning, as a salad wrapper and as the primary broth component. But its high volume of umami, the good savoury flavour, is the most significant advantage of nori in Japanese cuisine.

Read more: Umami is that taste you get from MSG, which isn’t as bad as you think!

Easy to cultivate, inexpensive, and diverse in quality and quantity, nori is the number one pick when it comes to enriching the flavour of broths and sauces. If you are familiar with Japanese cuisine, you are likely familiar with miso soup (味噌汁) and ramen noodles(ラーメン). These two famous and symbolic dishes employ seaweeds in the preparation of their broth.

brown ceramic bowl with soup
Photo by Ponyo Sakana on
  • Fish

In modern Japanese cuisine, fish is an iconic element. The island nation is still well known for its sushi and sashimi, but when it comes to seafood, that is not everything Japan has to offer. You may believe people eat sushi as their daily meal but that is not true. Many other common dishes made from fish are found in Japanese cuisine. Mackerel, tuna, trout, and unagi-Japanese eel are some of the most preferred fish types.

close up cuisine delicious dining table
Photo by Pixabay on

Compared to their meat-based counterparts, fish-based dishes, abundant in omega-3 and omega-6, are proven to be more nutrient-rich.

  • Soy-based ingredients

Soy comes in different and varying structures, ranging from tofu, miso, and edamame (steamed and salted soybeans) to natto (fermented soybeans from Japan), soy sauce, and soy milk. As well as healthy fat and carbs, soybeans contain a lot of protein. Often, soybeans are easy to digest and give a nutritious energy source. A case study in Japan showed that foods dependent on soybeans can help minimize breast cancer risk.

2. Ikigai (生き甲斐)

In short, it’s the emotional state with four elements: what you enjoy, what the world wants, what you are good at, and what you should be paid for.

Ikigai is a Japanese definition of a cause for being. The meaning of ikigai is to discover the purpose of your life, the justification for living, and the ability to get out of bed every day.

Ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements:

  • What you love (your passion)
  • What the world needs (your mission)
  • What you are good at (your vocation)
  • What you can get paid for (your profession)

To better explain why it is that people with a sense of mission are able to live a longer and happier life, scientists have published numerous experiments. Systematic research performed on nearly 7,000 U.S. individuals by the Health and Retirement Research (HRS) sought to find the connection between the meaning of life and mortality.

A group of researchers found a strong link between finding meaning in life and a lowered death rate in the aforementioned 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There is less fear, exhaustion, and harmful effects on the nervous system for people who know their path, intent, and target. The research at work here is still evolving, but ikigai has been studied by and practised by generations of Japanese people.

Make three lists: your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of the three lists is your ikigai.

Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest

Want to find your Ikigai? Ask yourself the following four questions:

  • What do I love?
  • What am I good at?
  • What can I be paid for now — or something that could transform into my future hustle?
  • What does the world need?

People with life goals sleep well and have more grey matter in the insula of their brain, reduced levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, and less saliva stress hormone cortisol.

They even walk quicker, have signs of good fitness, and have a better hand grip. Moreover, seeking purpose often decreases the risk, also in the face of Alzheimer’s disease, of cognitive decline. When a 90-year-old with a specific aim in life experiences Alzheimer’s disease, despite very real pathological changes in the brain, they are expected to remain working reasonably well.

We all have space for growth, definitely, it seems, particularly now when Covid-19 has us socially distanced. A true health-wrecker is isolation. One California research has found that socially isolated individuals are two-and-a-half to three times more likely than people who are more gregarious to die prematurely. Loneliness increases blood pressure and makes us (not helpful in pandemic times) more vulnerable to pathogens.

These days, reconnecting in person is not always an option, but one thing that can compensate for the missed hugs is finding meaning in life.

It seems, then, that taking the advice of the Japanese and looking for ikigai, regardless of whether your ikigai is battling for a cause you believe in, caring for your relatives, or merely arranging pressed flowers, will aid us along with the coronavirus isolation.

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles

10 rules that can help anyone find their own ikigai

1. Stay active and don’t retire
2. Leave urgency behind and adopt a slower pace of life
3. Only eat until you are 80 per cent full
4. Surround yourself with good friends
5. Get in shape through daily, gentle exercise
6. Smile and acknowledge people around you
7. Reconnect with nature
8. Give thanks to anything that brightens our day and makes us feel alive.
9. Live in the moment
10. Follow your ikigai

3. Preventive healthcare is prioritised

Japan has one of the world’s most effective healthcare services, providing accessible, high-quality insurance coverage that a vast number of people can conveniently access (ranked 4th by Bloomberg Effective Health Care in the world).

The expertise of the country’s physicians is both recognized and respected, and these two factors together mean that many Japanese regularly visit their physicians, increasing disease prevention and early detection.

When the results of an improved diet started to be felt, the corporate people of the city discovered ways to promote a balanced lifestyle.

In Matsumoto, the second-largest city in the country, a bank began providing higher interest rates and benefits for those who get medical checkups for three straight years, such as weekends at Tokyo’s Disneyland.

Blood pressure measurements will be collected by municipal health staff, questions answered and information about public health care programmes circulated. “Most residents never visit the town hall, but they go to convenience stores, so this is a nice way to meet them,” says Akira Sugenoya, the mayor of Matsumoto.

In Nagano, these preventive care efforts led to lower health care rates. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the per capita average in Japan was $3,120. In the United States, that compares with $8,233. The universal health insurance scheme in Japan, which protects nearly all people, including those in acute nursing care, is partially financed by municipal donations.

Sugenoya states, ‘Preventive treatment is much less expensive than trying to bring patients to the hospital.

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