Okinawa: No longer the land of longevity

TOKYO:  Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, has long boasted that the secret of the much-celebrated longevity of its people lies in its traditional vegetable- and pork-based cuisine.

No one disputed the claim, as long as Okinawan women continued to top the national longevity rankings, even though Okinawan men had lost the top spot since 1985.

But in the latest rankings announced this week, Okinawan women, who have hogged the Number One position since 1975, have been ousted into third place.

The year 1975 was the first time that the Okinawans were included in the national longevity rankings after the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, following 27 years of occupation by the Americans after World War Two.

Okinawan men, who had fallen to 25th position in the previous ranking five years ago, plunged even further this time to the 30th position.

The top spots for both men and women went to Nagano prefecture, where the life expectancy of men is now 80.88 years and for women, 87.18 years.

In contrast, the life expectancy is 79.40 years for Okinawa men and 87.02 for its women.

Nagano officials attributed the prefecture’s result to determined efforts over the years to cut down on residents’ daily salt intake – once the highest in Japan – and also to reduce the incidence of lifestyle diseases through dietary and other means.

Not surprisingly, the bill for medical care for the elderly in Nagano is also now the lowest in Japan.

Meanwhile, news of Okinawa’s decline in the longevity stakes came as such a shock that Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima felt compelled to issue a statement, saying: “We have to take the latest results very seriously.”

As a fan of Okinawan cuisine, I was also taken aback by the news.

I have always associated Okinawan cuisine, which is heavy on vegetables and pork but low on salt, with healthy eating.

One of their most well-known dishes is “goya champur”, a hearty stir-fry that features bitter gourd (goya), egg, firm Okinawan bean curd and typically also slices of pork luncheon meat (especially Spam, which is the overwhelmingly favourite brand in Okinawa).

Their stewed pork – frequently used as a topping in Okinawa noodles - is also out of this world.

But it appears that Okinawa’s cuisine is not at fault.

The problem is that the Okinawans are not eating enough of their own traditional dishes.

Instead, many Okinawans – especially the younger generation – these days prefer to eat high-calorie American fast food.

This Americanisation of the eating habits of the Okinawan people is clearly the result of the long years of American occupation of the prefecture.

Under the influence of the Americans, Okinawans have also become a society heavily dependent on the use of cars for transport, which means people do not get enough exercise.

What’s more, the Okinawans are also very fond of their drink, especially the local brew called “awamori”, which is distilled from rice and contains typically 30-43 per cent alcohol.

It is also believed that the switch by Okinawans to more convenient white rice, instead of taro root as the staple food as it was before World War Two, is another reason for the prefecture’s dietary problems.

The obesity rate in the prefecture is now Number One in Japan.

Only just last month, the University of the Ryukyus announced a study involving 10,000 middle-aged to elderly people to examine their eating habits. 

Experts believe that a lot of work needs to be done if the Okinawans are to regain the longevity crowns.

In a commentary in Ryukyu Shimpo daily on Mar 1, Professor Yusuke Ohya, who teaches at the University of the Ryukyus, said: “It has been pointed out that it will be difficult to change the individual’s eating habits, particularly as both husband and wife work in many families.”

“We will need a multi-prong approach, based on social factors, to tackle the problem,” he added.

Young Okinawan males in particular need special attention, as they are clearly dragging down the statistics.

Viewed by age group, Okinawan males above 75 years of age are still Number One in Japan in terms of longevity.

But in all age groups below the age of 64, Okinawan males rank around Number 30.

Besides getting Okinawans to drink less, eat less junk food, smoke fewer cigarettes and to work out more, the prefecture also seeks to steer people back to their traditional cuisine.

Dr Nobuyuki Watanabe, writing in a column in the Ryukyu Shimpo earlier this year, said the solution is simple.

“Our pork dishes are the source of Okinawa’s longevity,” said the medical doctor who runs a clinic for dietary problems in Naha, Okinawa’s largest city, and has also written books on the subject.