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Look and feel ageless: Longevity secrets of Japanese women

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I’ve recently travelled to the top 2 places in the world with the longest life expectancy of women1. Japan has been enjoying this longest-living-women title for over 25 years, averaging at age 86.3 in 2010, until the tsunami hit in 2011, dropping the number that year to 85.9. Hong Kong instantly took the lead at 86.7 years.

I know. You wouldn’t expect a city veiled in smog and crammed with towers to have its residents live to a ripe old age, right?

As a gal living in a nation with moderately high mortality rate (though has drastically improved in the last decade), I’m always seeking ways I can outsmart my supposed 74.88-year fate. I’m lucky to have grown completely rejecting some of the most common unhealthy habits out there, thanks to the way my parents have brought me up. But that doesn’t make me immune to the air pollution, bad sanitation, and the poor waste care that prevails Jakarta. Wherever your turn you’re in an unhygienic environment. Even the seemingly cleanest, most luxurious places are contaminated … not to physical factor of health, and that how everybody I know in the city travels mainly by car, as traveling on foot is uncommon among the middle- to upper-class citizens.

There’s also the sweeping fried food snacks studded along every street. Compared to the “street foods”/vending machines/ekiben 駅弁/fast food joints that I’ve seen in Japan, it’s blatantly clear to me why Japanese women never seem to get old, stressed, bitter, or fat, even if I’ve never read Naomi Moriyama’s diet book. Well, there’s also the Pitera factor to consider, but that’s another story.

With this post, I thought instead of focusing on what we can’t control2, let’s focus on what we can: What we eat, what we do, and how we live. There are so many things to learn from Japanese women – some of their lifestyle habits even overlap with the Hong Kong counterparts. Even if you don’t plan to live long (who doesn’t?!), it’d be good to know what’s really behind their superior quality of life. So without further ado, let’s examine all the ways we can all emulate the Japanese woman:

Balanced diet

Pile on the veggies

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Veggies as pickled snacks, veggies on rice, veggies with miso, raw veggies in sushi, veggies stir-fried, veggies fermented, veggies simply simmered – they make all kinds of produce delicious in a million ways and hence, it’s the norm. This makes eating vegetables so enjoyable to eat that you want to eat them everyday. Instead of relying on popping individual (and expensive!) vitamins and minerals, start making the habit of eating veggies everyday as your first line of defense against diseases.

Fresh from the sea

Sea veggies are a staple in Japan: Women snack on nori, eat kelp, slurp on wakame-stocked soups, and drink kombucha. Not only do these mineral-rich, vitamin C-loaded veggies provide pure protein, they also burn fat, stabilizes blood sugar levels, regulate hormones (therefore often considered excellent for women’s health), and contain practically zero cholesterol.

Pair those deep greens with raw, fresh, and super fatty sashimi (otoro 大とろ, anyone?), and you’ll seriously think you’ve died and went to heaven. Eating fish (and other seafood) regularly not only fulfills your daily protein requirements, they also provide far more essential fatty acids than a standard dose in the vitamin form. I think if I’ve never discovered Japanese food my entire life, I’ll never know that nutritious food can be deadly delicious.

Eat your portion

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Notice how Japanese foods are always served in small and balanced proportions of macronutrients, not to mention using chopsticks makes them pick up less food in one bite and allows them to take time to enjoy their servings. These table etiquettes make it all the easier for women in Japan to eat enough, even with portion control.

Speaking of which, you’ve probably heard of hara hachi bu 肚8分, which is the concept of eating until your belly’s 80% full. This concept is popularized by the massive study done on the centenarians in Okinawa, who are the only known population to practice calorie-restriction and happens to enjoy the highest life expectancy on the planet. The women in Hong Kong are similar in the way that they practically dine on yum cha as a full meal every week, which are bite-sized delicacies to pair with their tea. Which brings us to …

Enjoy tea

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Tea is a less jolting way than coffee to get your caffeine kick. Besides that, Camellia sinensis teas, depending on how it was harvested (black, oolong, pu-erh, green, yellow, white?), are packed with antioxidants, the essential free-radical-scavenging molecules that reduces oxidative stress, delays the aging process, and protects you from all sorts of heart diseases and cancer.

More than any other Asian countries (except China), the Japanese embraces tea as part of their everyday beverage. Women drink green tea everyday not because they think it’s good for them, but it’s just part of the nation’s tradition (the Japanese tea culture and their Shinto philosophy) and lifestyle – the sencha 煎茶 to the Japanese is filtered water to us. It’s almost as if when you ask for ocha お茶 in restaurants, you automatically get a warm cup of sencha, or hot water to stir the matcha powder sitting on the edge of your table. It really helps to get you into the habit of a daily quiet tea time when you have bottle-tea vending machines sprawling over your country~

Soy > meat

Tofu and other soyfoods are a staple of the national diet. Even their main source of sodium is the soy sauce. When served in equal calories, the soya curd contains just as much percentage of protein as a standard serving of red meat, but loaded with bone-fortifying calcium and zero cholesterol, and therefore, not an iota of side effects from when you eat meat regularly. Isoflavones, the oestrogen-like substances in soy products, are especially beneficial for supporting women’s health in that they regulate hormones (which is why you don’t see many Japanese women publicly exhibiting their PMS symptoms) and reduces her chances of getting breast cancer3 and osteoporosis4. Now in no way am I endorsing a vegetarian diet or the like5, but if you really need that umami flavor to your soy routine, add some stalks of shiitake and enoki mushrooms to your miso soup. Simply hearty and delicious!


Active lifestyle

Walk/Bike everywhere

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Japan has the most highly-developed and reliable transportation systems (plus the shinkansen) in the world to support their daily commute life. The average annual delay time per train was only 0.9 seconds6! In their heels and heavy handbags, Japanese women basically get their cardio and strength training daily just by relying on trains as their main means of transport – you run after a train, stand with your weights on your shoulders, flex your whole feet while waiting, and walk to and from the station. As to why driving personal cars isn’t common, it’s for economic reasons. Though roads are paved and bridges span through long distances, is so much more expensive than traveling on by railway systems and/or on foot – you’re going to account for the pricey tolls and taxes (and also why using taxi in Japan can go up to 5 digits in JP¥!).

Biking is also very common in Japanese people. Those neat pavements are usually packed with Japanese women on bikes and their baskets of fresh produce in the mornings. This may be the reason why most restaurants in Japan won’t open till noon – maybe they cook and eat their breakfasts at home?

Sweat often

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Japanese women are fit, but probably sweat less than you do at the gym. You don’t normally see Japanese girls lifting massively heavyweights while working out, and these lighter exercises work for them because their daily lifestyle supports massive unplanned movement (see above: Walk/Bike everywhere). So in a sense, their sweat equity/”exercise” is spread throughout the day, instead of a single timeframe where you actually “work up a sweat”, which is the norm among middle- to upper-class society in Indonesia as well as in Western cultures. In city parks and suburban neighborhoods, you’re bound to see a lot of older Japanese women actually running instead of power walking and the like. It’s no surprise, considering year by year, the Japanese topped the world’s fastest times in elite long-distance running competitions.

Don’t retire

… at least, in your own terms. It’s common to see retired Japanese elderlies assisting family farms with the same energy and vitality as they do when they were younger. Like in long-distance running, keeping yourself busy even after you retire resembles the very nature of the Japanese spirit (maken-ki! 負けん気 spirit) of endurance and perseverance. There’s even a public holiday dedicated to celebrate the elderlies – Keiro no hi 敬老の日, or Respect for the Aged Day.

This rings true in Hong Kong, although never-give-up spirit doesn’t translate well in the Fragrant Harbor’s labor workforce. “For older people, a lot of them are stressed because they have nothing to do and they develop ’emptiness syndrome’, said Hong Kong Association of Gerontology president Edward Leung to New York Daily News. “This causes mental stress.” This is why it’s also common to see elderlies in their mid-70s ready to serve you in shops and markets – either they’re still working or just assisting their family to run the business.

Keep socially engaged

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When you’re old and you stare at blank walls all day, you can literally die of ennui. Whether it’s socializing in nursing homes or simply maintaining family ties, older Japanese women may stay active in the society to make themselves feel useful, but the continuous social engagement and support from their network actually keeps their cognitive functions stay in tip-top shape7. They continue to see the world beyond closed walls and chat with different people everyday, as they did when they were young. If they should develop expensive illnesses of old age such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’ll cost their caregivers and themselves, as they have this concept of ikigai 生き甲斐, which literally means a reason for being. This concept carries a tone of responsibility to it, as in to have a life worth living.

Healthy mindset

Simplicity and beauty

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This relates a lot with the wabi-sabi 侘寂8 concept in the arts, but Japanese people prize a particular quality that the world don’t normally find attractive. Japanese women deemed beautiful are said to have “hidden” beauty, or mienai oshare 見えない お洒落. The idea is that beauty is not something to be displayed or exhibited, but rather radiates from within. Qualities such as kindness, calmness, politeness, and femininity are prized in Japan – the acts of such qualities are comparably attractive to wearing a sweet, girly lingerie for Japanese women, that is, worn underneath big sweaters. This elusive pure/soft/gentle/delicate quality might sound similar to the Korean’s obsession with natural beauty products, but it goes far beyond crystal-clear-skin-deep: It’s all about poise that does not have to be noticed by others. Everything from selecting subtle patterns in kimonos to keeping a stress-free beauty regime is for you and you yourself alone, plus those people who can “feel” the beauty of you too.

Healthcare is for everyone

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Misao Okawa and her family – the world’s longest living person, recently died of old age in a nursing home at the age of 117.

Japan is one of the 58 nations in the world with Universal Healthcare System, making healthcare accessible to each and every Japanese citizen. It comes to no surprise that regular check-ups are the norm, as frequently as 12 times a year, as they are insured for everything from screenings to prenatal care. This mandate has simplified the distribution of the nation’s economic output in the long run. The current trend has not only limited out-of-pocket expenses from citizens, it’s also reduced the government’s healthcare expenditures in recent years (view this chart to see the declining growth), compared to the ever-increasing counterpart of other nations.

Hygiene is #1

Granted, the healthiest diets in the world and sweating regularly alone doesn’t always translate to longevity. The number one secret behind why Japanese women last longer? According to professor Kenji Shibuya of Tokyo University, Japanese people give attention to hygiene in all aspects of their daily life.9 “This attitude might partly be attributable to a complex interaction of culture, education, climate, environment, and the Shinto tradition of purifying the body and mind before meeting others.” It’s no wonder Japan has some of the most exquisite (and intriguing!) toilets in the world.

 

Now over to you: Which one of these Japanese lifestyle habits do you resonate with the most? Spill everything from your favorite sushi to the exercise that appeals most to you. What are some of the core philosophies that you hold that has kept you happy and healthy today?

 


Stace

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via Four Wheel Drift / PulptasticYarn Alive / The Cotton Boll ConspiracyGaijin Go Japan / Lonely Planet / Serious Eats

 Footnote(s):

  1. Japanese Women Fall to No. 2 in Life Expectancy. [LiveScience] []
  2. Our genetic makeup, the current state of the nation, the government’s role in improving healthcare, and so on []
  3. Women’s Health & Soy [Dr. Weil] []
  4. it’s the calcium – 100g of a standard tofu gives you a whopping 35% of your daily calcium requirements []
  5. I normally eat meat only 1-2x a week out of habit []
  6. Central Japan Railway Company – Punctuality [JR Central] []
  7. Social Engagement and Cognitive Function in Old Age [Experimental Aging Research] []
  8. This concept embraces the idea that nothing perfect in this world, or a more positive outlook at it, to see the beauty in imperfections. Read more: Wabi-Sabi: The Art of Imperfection [Utne] []
  9. Why do people live longer in Japan? [Age Watch] []
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