Okinawans live longer than any other people in the world. Why? A team of medical researchers collected data for twenty-five years on the island to find out.
Karate comes from the island of Okinawa
Karate is Okinawa’s most famous export.
But the Okinawan secrets of longevity might be even more popular, if more people knew about them.
Okinawa is a small island in the Pacific Ocean. It is in a long archipelago that runs from the Sakhalin Islands off the Pacific coast of Russia in the north, through the islands of mainland Japan, and continues south, through the ocean east of Korea and China.
South of Japan are the Ryukyu Islands. The largest one of the hundred or so Ryukyus is Okinawa, about halfway between Japan and Taiwan, as the archipelago approaches the coast of Fujian province, China.
Why would people on this small island live longer than anyone else in the world?
(And not just a little longer. At the time of the Okinawan Centenarian Study the average American was living to 78. On Okinawa it was 90. 12 years longer. And the US was 18th in the world at that time.)
The answer to this would be useful to know.
It is not the climate
The climate on Okinawa is not unique and it is not perfect. It is a low-latitude Pacific island. There are a lot of places with similar climate, as beautiful as it is it is well provided with heat, humidity, rain and typhoons.
It is not the economy
Okinawa is not wealthy. It is the poorest prefecture in Japan. Although it is tropical it is not a tropical paradise. Thousands of Okinawans emigrated during the 1920s to Hawaii and Peru and elsewhere, to work as agricultural laborers, because life on Okinawa was so hard.
It is not peace
A third of the people of Okinawa died during the four months of the Battle of Okinawa. Hundreds of thousands. That event was in living memory of all of the adults in the longevity study. The starvation, rape and torture, the mass death of families hiding in the limestone caves, the flamethrowers and incendiaries consuming their homes and villages, was the story of their lives. The Typhoon of Steel in 1945 took its toll on the families of the same Okinawan people who were outliving the rest of the world.
It was not independence
The trauma of the war was a modern phase in a long history of invasion. The Ming Chinese placed Okinawa in the role of a vassal state in the 15th century. The southern Japanese Satsuma clan took control in the 17th century, so that the Okinawans were pressed between two imperial powers.
Some say it was the Satsuma ban on the weapons of the era – swords and halberds – that led the Okinawans to make use of the agricultural tools they had right at hand – the grain flail (nunchaku), the carrying pole (bo staff), the sickle (kama), the oar (eku) and others – into weapons of defense, as a last resort.
It’s not politics
In 1879 expanding Meiji-era Japan conquered Okinawa outright. Drafting the Okinawan men into the military or using them as laborers, banning the use of the indigenous Okinawan language and requiring the children in the schools to speak only Japanese, a foreign language for them.
The older folks, when I was there, grew up in the shadow of that time. Their lives continued under American occupation until 1972, when Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan once again.
But there they were. Living into their 90s. One of the karate teachers I practiced with there, Shoshin Nagamine, lived to be 90.
I was in a karate class at his dojo one evening. The temperature had fallen to about 95 degrees. The instructor that night was one of the leaders of the style, so the room was full. Unexpectedly, Shoshin Nagamine, then in his 80s, came in wearing his karate uniform.
The instructor stepped aside and Sensei Nagamine led the class, giving us pointers on our technique and encouragement in our training. When we finished class a few hours later he brought out a tray of glasses and a pitcher from the back room, and poured drinks of water for all of us.
Nagamine Sensei had been the Chief of Police for Motobu, Okinawa. He received national honors from the government of Japan in recognition of his contribution to martial arts. His comments on karate were cited in the longevity study, known as the Japanese Ministry of Health’s Okinawa Centenarian Study, which was a collaboration of medical research teams from the University of the Ryukyus and Harvard Medical School.
Karate means empty hands
Before the 20th century the local martial art on Okinawa was called ‘te’ – hands. That’s how martial practitioners referred to it to distinguish it from the armed techniques they would rely on to defend themselves, their ships, and their villages. They used special training methods to toughen their bodies and to become powerful and fast.
Travel over the ocean was dangerous. The weather was changeable and violent, and piracy was a fact of life. For the Okinawans losing a ship at sea could mean losing two years of livelihood.
For them martial skill was as critical as seamanship.
The Okinawans learned from the Chinese as they traveled and traded. Fujian province, site of their most frequent ports of call, was noted for White Crane kung fu, a supple and powerful martial style.
In those early times people had to pull together for defense. Everyone was responsible for themselves and for everyone else. There was no one to delegate safety to, on board a ship or back home.
There was not as much specialization as we have today. Back then everyone could fish and farm, fix a boat or a net, weave cloth, find water, prepare food, brew sake and repair houses. And if there was something special needed – a trade or a craft or a religious ceremony – there was bound to be someone nearby who could show you how it was done.
Taking care of each other
The people in the villages practiced defense together. You have to practice to stay strong. As you do you get more than skills and fitness. You learn, through martial practice and through sports, to compete and to collaborate, to lead and to follow, and to know which is appropriate under what conditions.
The Okinawan people grew up together, they worked together, they trained together. Everyone was responsible for themselves and for everyone else they lived with. The people formed what they called ‘moai’ – groups of people who came together for mutual support. In times of need, to raise tax money for a village, to build a house, take care of someone who was sick or injured – as a community.
The moai evolved to become clubs where people would meet to socialize but also to see what they could do to contribute to the well-being of their community.
That habit of deep communal connection between people is unusual in the modern world.
So when the medical research team looked at why the Okinawans were living so long, they thought this might be significant.
The researchers sought out karate master Shoshin Nagamine because for Okinawan men, karate dojos traditionally had this kind of mutual, social atmosphere.
For the women, working and living together with shared responsibilities, and in leading the spiritual life of the island, was the centerpiece to community formation.
The researchers found that if you have a rich network of good relationships with other people it makes you happy, and it helps you to be resilient under pressure. You are appreciated, you are needed and the world isn’t all about you. That is a pre-modern way of relating to the people around you. It is good for you.
Fresh local food
The study focused on the Okinawan diet. Nutrition is familiar territory for medical researchers and it is easy to measure and to compare across populations.
Made with love
The researchers found that the Okinawan diet is healthy: fresh food, grown or caught locally, not processed, made with love, and shared. That is a pre-modern way of eating. It is a good way to do it.
Moving with purpose and skill
The researchers also found that the Okinawans were very physical. Being physical was not just for fitness, not just for a segment of the population, and not exercising on workout machines in front of big screen TVs.
For generations on Okinawa people practiced vigorous karate, they danced, drummed, ran races on the beach, raced dragon boats in the surf, and many did physical day jobs too.
They weren’t just moving, they were moving with purpose, with skill, intent on becoming more skilled at what they were doing. And they did it together.
The old taught the young because the old had experience that mattered. The young appreciated them and learned from them.
The Okinawan secrets are:
- nourish your body and mind,
- use your body and mind with skill and purpose;
- respect yourself and others, and live together.
The longevity of the Okinawan people has recently begun to decline. With the increased “standard of living” the accelerating pace of life, urbanization, manufactured food and entertainment, village life is being replaced with modernity.
Still, here and there, people hold on to the life that makes them most human.
On a secluded part of the beach at night on Okinawa, away from the lights, the ocean surrounds you. You can hear it. There is no end to it. You can see the horizon over the ocean everywhere. You feel the grandeur of the world. Tip your head back. You can see the sky bright with stars, infinite above you. You are part of that. Miraculous and vast. You can see the smoke from the ring of fire down the beach where everyone you know is moving, now in a circle, now stopping and dipping down, and moving again, chanting and singing to the sound of drums, and fragile lilting strings. Not singing along. Singing. There they are. Beautiful and strong. Graceful and courageous. Warm hearted, magnificent and precious, gathered in close to the fire, an island in the infinite.
Commit and Persist
Shoshin Nagamine, when he was in his 80s, spoke to me about his karate, and about his desire to bring an appreciation for Okinawan culture to the world. He was devoted to his country and his people. They were his neighbors and his family.
He took the time, with the many overseas visitors who came to his small dojo to visit and train with him, to talk about this.
He understood the secrets of Okinawan longevity, and health and happiness.
He understood how badly the modern world needed these vanishing values.
Wouldn’t it be good to help them take root again.