Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Japanese Longevity

Facing the Onslaught of Western Ways

by Ruth Rendely, citizen journalist (November 02 2007)

Life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world - 79 years for men and 86 years for women. By comparison, life expectancy for the United States ranks 38th, with men living on the average 75 years and women eighty years. Underpinning Japan's high life expectancy is another title. Japan has the world's lowest infant mortality rate. An issue in making such comparisons is that unlike many other countries, Japan's population is homogenous. Japan has no immigration policy, and foreigners who reside there must abide by contractual work agreements.

Japanese, though, do appear to have unusually high energy levels and the ability to work long hours, with little sleep. Drinking after work with co-workers is the normal evening ritual, topping off a ten-hour workday. Once bidding their co-workers goodnight, the salary man or woman then commutes an hour by train to their home, where they might eat a late meal with their spouse. Then the couple retires around midnight, and arises five or six hours later to begin a new day. Somehow this doesn't compute with longevity.

So what are the reasons that they have consistently beaten the world's records? There have been a few cultural factors that may have genetically compounded over the country's long history. Since scientists recently discovered that low body-weight correlates with longevity, the traditional Japanese diet that consisted of rice, fish, fermented soy products and pickles did support a leaner population. There is also a cultural dictum that was widely observed which says to eat only to eighty percent full. This meant that fewer free radicals were created in the digestive process. Fewer free radicals translates into better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of cancer and other diseases. The Japanese also readily adhered to the seasonal availability of certain fresh foods and seafood, and women still shop daily for fresh food. Also with the traditional Japanese emphasis on beauty, the placement of small portions of food on the plate were often more important than their taste or volume.

The Japanese adherence to Buddhism moreover played a role in keeping the population svelte because of its prohibition on eating meat. Although the Chinese introduced Buddhism to Japan about 1500 years ago, the Japanese actually practiced Buddhism, while the Chinese became more partial to Confucianism. When Japanese Buddhist priests, emperors and shoguns abstained from eating meat, the general population was made to follow suit. Only beginning with the Meiji imperial restoration of 1867, did Western influence become stronger and Japanese restaurants began serving meat.

Note that some of the foods we associate with Japan, like Tempura and Sukiyaki are relatively recent Western additions. The Portuguese missionaries introduced batter-dipped deep-fried shrimp to the Japanese 400 years ago, and Sukiyaki, with its use of beef, was a late 19th century Japanese version of a Western meal.

Also until the 20th century high-fat dairy products were unheard of in Japan, as there were no dairy or meat cows in the country. Even as late as the 1960s ice cream was deemed too rich to eat, and the Japanese preferred ice milk instead. At that time the Japanese had never heard the term "diet", nor did they understand the concept. Even today obesity is not a problem in Japan.

Because the culture has always been strongly divided along gender lines, eating sweets was considered womanly, and men wouldn't risk being seen eating desserts. Furthermore typical Japanese kitchens lack an oven, and baked goods are not made at home.

One smart thing the Japanese did from the 1970s was to substitute stevia for artificial sweeteners in many processed foods. Stevia is a natural herb made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories. Stevia sweeteners have been produced commercially in Japan since 1977 and are widely used in food products and soft drinks, including Coca Cola.

By the way, Americans were less lucky because Donald Rumsfeld, in an earlier incarnation, was CEO of Searle Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of aspartame, commonly known as NutraSweet. Soon after Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, Rumsfeld saw to it that the FDA approved this known carcinogen for an ever-growing number of foods and soft drinks.

Besides dietary considerations, there are a couple of other factors contributing to Japanese longevity. Sweating is known to release toxins from the body, and one practically religious ritual in Japan is bathing in super hot water every night. This ritual involves the whole family, as all members share the bathwater. And this brings up the final noticeable feature of Japanese society supporting their longevity - close family ties are the norm in Japan.

But there have been recent challenges to Japanese health and lifestyle. More and more Western style meals have replaced traditional meals. Pizza, cheese, bakeries and ice cream shops abound. In the larger cities there is a MacDonald's or a Kentucky Fried Chicken every several hundred yards. The previous cultural dictum about sweets being only for women has long been forgotten. Also the continuing widespread use of MSG in most processed food, as well as other chemicals that their food industry regularly uses has to have long-term consequences. It is interesting to note that although the Japanese government has banned the importation of genetically modified foods; Mitsubishi Corporation has had no qualms about going into a joint venture with Monsanto, the main produce of GMO foods, to poison the rest of the world.

The Japanese high usage of electricity, one third of which is produced by nuclear plants has to be a worry. In most towns and cities the crisscrossing of high wires is ubiquitous. New apartments and homes are built with many electrical gadgets, including heated toilet seats and remote control devices built into the walls allowing bath water levels and temperature to be set from either the bathroom or the kitchen. With an ever-expanding number of cell phone towers, and railways, Tokyo, with its thirty million residents, is probably the electronic smog capital of the world.

With the concentration of the population in cities with few trees or green parks, the lack of oxygen in the air is almost palpable. Possibly because the Japanese commute to work by train, they have never had to worry about drunk-driving charges. While alcohol consumption is down in most industrialized countries, Japanese consumption of alcohol has quadrupled since 1960.

Considering their steady industrialization and "modernization", one wonders how long Japan will be able to maintain its longevity title? Of course, everything is relative, so if the rest of the world continues to race towards greater and greater consumption of genetically modified foods and chemicals in food and the environment, then Japan may still come out on top.


Ruth Rendely has led two lives. The more traditional one has been as a university history lecturer and occasional writer for the Washington Post, and the Mainichi Graphic. She has a master's degree in East Asian history and speaks Japanese fluently. She completed doctoral studies in American intellectual history at the University of Iowa. Her recent life has been as a meditation instructor, healer, and spiritual teacher. Currently she is planning a promotional event for her new book Seraphim Blueprint: The Power of Angel Healing (2007) on November 6th through For details see: and

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Bill Totten


  • A really good start on the path to a healthy diet will begin with Organic Free Food. And they deliver to your home, too.

    Find out more at

    At least, you'll learn a lot there.

    By Anonymous, at 11:00 AM, March 13, 2010  

  • I may have seen sillier comments, but I don't remember when.

    By Blogger Bill Totten, at 9:20 PM, March 13, 2010  

  • The article Japanese Longevity is very good, profound.
    The healing aspect of oriental foods goes back almost six thousand years. The orientals that took over Japam two tousand years ago were from both ancient Korea and ancient China. The changes from these wisdoms of survival wll be few and far between as the West goes into bankruptsies of culture.

    Asia is one of the vital engines of the future.

    By Blogger suzannedk, at 3:53 AM, March 14, 2010  

  • I saw so much worthwhile material here!

    By Anonymous, at 10:02 PM, November 10, 2011  

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