Old Ass Okinawans

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Do I want to live to be over 100?

Depends on what day it is.

If I’m in my hippy-dippy-people-loving-nature-embracing-lets-paint-pretty-pictures-and-call-them-masterpieces state of mind, of course I do.

Most of the time, however, the thought of living in a shrinking body seems less than desirable, not to mention the elongated subjection to the morally-debilitating and increasing naiveté of the privileged, workaholic state that is the United States of America.

Maybe I should move to Japan. Okinawa, to be exact.

Historically, Okinawa–an island off the coast of Japan–was best known for being the site of the climactic battle of World War II’s Pacific theater, but that is not why I contemplate moving there.

As the decades progressed beyond the horrors of the war, so did the population, making it more known, these days, for its strong, aging population, which is the oldest in the world.

The island is known as “The Land of the Immortals.”

The facts prove it: For every 1,000 people who live on the island (the island has a total population of approximately 1.4 million), 34 are centenarians, averaging in roughly 457 people living over the age of 100 on Okinawa Island.

That’s a lot of old people, if one was defining “old” simply as an age.

Visits to the island have proven that the aged Okinawans are anything but debilitated. They are not dementia-ridden versions of their former selves stuck in the body of a human raison. They are, rather, more athletic, capable and motivated than most of the people I know in New York City. Definitely happier.

For example, seven years ago, Seikichi Uehara, 96, defeated an ex-boxing champion who was in his 30s.

And–get ready for this–Nabi Kinjo, 105, killed a poisonous snake with a flyswatter.

A flyswatter! That’s pretty badass.

From what I gather, the overall vibe of these people is that they are morally and physically strong and would live to the end of time, if it were possible.

“I hardly ever get angry. I enjoy life because I’m happy at work and I think that is the medicine for a long life,” said a fisherman who was interviewed in a short documentary about Okinawa’s health and longevity.

(Another interesting fact: There is no word for “retirement” in the local dialect).

Okushima-san, who is 103 and a resident of Ogimi, one of Okinawa’s poorest villages, has 13 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

“I was worried about how I would raise all the children and wondered if I would be able to live very long. I had no choice but to raise them myself,” said Okushima-san, to end a conversation about losing her husband, who died in World War II.

Well, she did.

Okushima doesn’t use glasses or a hearing aid, or even a cane. Most days, she works, either in the fields or out of her home.

If you look around the fields of Ogimi, they are full of 90-year-olds harvesting their dinners.

“Most of the time, however, the thought of living in a shrinking body seems less than desirable, not to mention the elongated subjection to the morally-debilitating and increasing naiveté of the privileged, workaholic state that is the United States of America.”

What is the secret to their seemingly pill-free, stressless longevity?

American gerontologist Dr. Craig Willcox, who has spent many years investigating Okinawan longevity and co-wrote the book, “The Okinawa Program,” says the answer is not in their social structure or health care, but in their diet and exercise.

According to Willcox, the Okinawans have “a low risk of arteriosclerosis and stomach cancer, a very low risk of hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer. They eat three servings of fish a week, on average … plenty of whole grains, vegetables and soy products too, more tofu and more konbu seaweed than anyone else in the world, as well as squid and octopus, which are rich in taurine–that could lower cholesterol and blood pressure.”

In short, a low-calorie, low-stress, plant and carbohydrate-rich diet is the answer:

Green, leafy vegetables
Sweet potatoes
Fruit (not a whole lot)
Zuki beans
Brown rice
Unprocessed carbohydrates (very little sugary/processed food)
Little dairy
Oils (soy, canola) in a stir-fry
Not a lot of nuts and seeds
Eggs sometimes (not too often)
Seaweed
Miso, tofu, edamame, tempeh, soymilk

In many ways, Okinawa is a paradise, mentally, physically and geographically, but just like any other, it is not void of outside influences.

Since World War II, Okinawa has been a critical strategic location for the United States Armed Forces. The island hosts around 26,000 U.S. military personnel, about half of the total complement of the United States Forces Japan.

The Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a sprawling military base in the south of the island, is considered to be the most dangerous base in the world in regard to civilian safety and fails to meet the minimum U.S. safety standards for military bases.

In the U.S., a “clear zone” is established around bases where people cannot have residences. However in Ginowan City, there are 18 public facilities including elementary schools, day care centers, and hospitals, and 3,600 residents live very close to the base. The amount of land taken up by the base already prevents city development.

The U.S. and Japan are in the process of discussing the relocation of the base to Nago, which is on the northern part of the island.

Polls consistently show Okinawans and, increasingly, mainland Japanese, are opposed to replacing the base, especially since the U.S.’s aim is to not only move but replace it with a state-of-the-art military base capable of housing the MV-22 Osprey, a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, by using Japanese people’s tax money.

The United States’ military presence has had a large impact on the younger generation of Okinawans, especially in terms of the seductive food and culture that has been influencing the cities.

Hot dogs, hamburgers and fries are replacing the healthier, traditional food of the island.

Obesity rates are booming and lung cancer is growing faster here than anywhere else in Japan.

“What we have seen here in Okinawa over the past 30 years or so as a population has gone from seeing some of the leanest people in Japan to having the highest body mass index among the Japanese,” said Willcox.

The older people have changed little, but the world around them has transformed.

“How long will I live?” said Minoru Gushiken, 93.

“There’s 20 more years left in me,” he continues, laughing. “I would like to stay around until I’m at least 120 years old so that I can see what kind of culture we have become.”

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