I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.
Why do Japanese people live longer?
As a group Japanese people live longer than nearly all other people. But why is that? The quick answer has something to do with green tea and the Japanese diet. This quickly shifts the conversation to why you're still putting bacon on everything. Stop that!
Yes, the Japanese diet is very healthy. I live in Japan. I have for the past several years and it's a lot of Japanese food and green tea. Then looking past the food there's more going on. There are other things that the nutrition experts back home don't see. Things that the other expats see but don't connect. These are the things that nobody will find in the beakers and test tubes.
So what's going on? Why do Japanese people live longer? Here are seven reasons nobody will tell you. None of these will tack on the decades individually but all of them are simple, easy to apply and they work.
7. They walk everywhere
The way Japanese communities are designed makes walking and bicycling ideal. Most residential streets are too narrow for more than one vehicle to pass. Also, there is always a shortage of parking. A house gets one space (if lucky) and most apartment residents are out of luck.
Also, gasoline prices keep creeping up and vehicle registration fees and drivers license fees are so high that a person is just better off without a car. With great public transit and low crime it's a no-brainer.
So what many people in the West do as a relaxing exercise is vital necessity in Japan. Need to get something at the market? Walk. You have to go back because you forget something? Walk. Meeting your buddy at the train station? Walk. Post office? Bank? Walk.
Again, a lot of this stuff is close by but the walking never ends. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, rain or shine--there is a lot of walking. When things get farther go for the bicycle.
There is no "I'm tired." There is no "It's too hot" or "It's raining." There is no "My thing hurts" (but you probably should get it checked out). It's normal to see eighty year old ladies walking home with bags of groceries every day.
What might seem like a pain in the neck is a superior health advantage. Walking is very healthy and it's easy for most people. So why not walk more often? If you must drive everywhere, park a little farther away than usual.
6. They don't wear shoes at home
"Tadaima" is what we say when we come back home in Japan. It means "I'm home." Then, if anyone is already home, the response is "Okaeri" which means "Welcome home."
Whatever people say to each other, one thing that everybody does is take their shoes off at the door. Then before they leave home they slip their shoes on. There is even a place for this called the "genkan." The genkan is inside every home, most schools and even some restaurants. It is next to every door that leads outside.
So how does this help anyone live longer? First is comfort. No pair of shoes will ever be more comfortable than feet on a carpet or tatami. Also, going barefoot has its own health benefits. Bare feet (or wearing only socks) spare us from the risks of bunions, corns, athlete's foot and countless other complaints. It allows for a natural gait. This comfort is very much appreciated, if only for a few hours.
Shoes protect our feet from dirt, harmful microorganisms and chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. There's no reason to bring this stuff into the house and repeatedly grind it into our floors and carpets everyday. Why not leave it at the door?
Also, unofficially, this small ritual reinforces the idea that the individual is home. The stress of the office and the outside world is sealed out. Putting our shoes back on when leaving the home signals that it's time to wake up and face the challenges of a new day.
So why not give it a try? Your shoes may even last longer if you use them less.
5. They use less air conditioning and heating
Once inside, you'll find that the locals use less air conditioning in the summer and less heating in the winter. This is a bummer because most of Japan has a temperate climate. This means it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
Although Japanese society is as technologically advanced as it gets, centralized climate control at home is rare. This is because fossil fuels are more expensive than in many other countries. When temperatures get extreme, we are forced to use the "air con"--an electric air conditioner mounted on the wall in each room about half the size of your printer. Thankfully this is not too often.
So in the summer we face the heat with our "sempuu-ki" (electric fan), "uchiwa" (hand-held fan), and lots of fluids. Water gets boring after a while so it's cold "mugi-cha" (barley tea) which has its own health benefits.
In the winter it's the "stove" (a small but strong kerosine heater) and "kotatsu" (electric legwarmer). We wear two pairs of socks and a "hanten" (short, thick indoor winter coat). This, along with warm green tea and soup.
Still, it's our bodies that pull most of the weight in keeping us warm or cool. The human body burns energy to maintain body temperature, even when it's too hot. The colder (or warmer) it gets, the harder the body works. This sheds pounds without us even knowing it--almost everyday.
So why not give it a try? Go easy on the air conditioning every once in a while. In the summer open a window. In the winter put on a hat. You might also find a pleasant dent in your utility bill.
4. They sit differently
Now that you're barefoot and sweating (or shivering) you probably want to relax. Have a seat. You'll find that chairs and sofas are rare in most Japanese homes. Many Japanese rooms and apartments don't have the floor space for chairs and sofas. Usually these living areas double as bedrooms at night so there is probably a futon mattress in the closet.
Also because shoes are not worn in the home there is no problem sitting on the floor. Carpeting or "tatami" (woven straw mats) make this easier. For more comfort, there are "zabuton" (flat square cushions) a-plenty. So how does this help Japanese people live longer?
Take a look at the photo to above. It's an izakaya snack bar. I've been there a few times. Trust me, it has no chairs. Japanese homes don't have the removable floorboards so they must sit in the "agura" (cross-legged) position. A more formal and traditional position of seating is known as "seiza." Seiza resembles a kneeling position and does not include a chair either.
This is a good thing. With no chairs to lean back on a person must use his back and abdominal muscles to keep himself from falling over. In other words the miracle of "active sitting" everyone back home is raving about has been in practice in Japan since the beginning of time. A native will start sitting this way from the day he can walk until the last days of his life.
But none of this happens when sitting in a chair because the core muscles automatically relax. Then it is up to the spine alone to handle the weight of the upper torso for as long as the person is sitting. And in modern life there is a lot of sitting.
You don't have to throw out all of your furniture (please don't) but there's no law saying that you have to lean back in every chair you sit in. So don't lean back all the time. You'll probably look on edge but your core muscles will get a long, steady workout you won't even notice and your spinal disks will get some relief.
3. They're serious about sh*t... usually
Speaking of stools, in Japan talking about bowel movements is not fiercely taboo like it is in the West. It's not met with shock and horror. It's not seen as tasteless humor. Well sometimes it's pretty funny but usually it isn't. It's easy to talk about casually and think about seriously.
But how does this help anyone live longer? When people here shoot the sh*t it's usually as a question about what's going on in the gut--as it should be. For example, one question my girlfriend and I ask each other every day is "Did you 'unko' today?" "Unko" is the Japanese word for bowel movement. Some folks use it as a noun and a verb.
If the answer is "yes," we give a short report about it. Yes, seriously. If the answer is "no" for more than two days in a row we know it's time to change something in life. More fluids, more veggies, more exercise, more stress management--the simple things that keep us regular are also what keep us living longer and healthier. This daily conversation is common among family members but it almost never happens back home.
In my time in service as a medic in the US Army I rarely talked about bowel movements with patients and it's the patients who always brought it up. When do they bring it up? When it's too late. When there's a severe problem that has the poor guy on the floor in the fetal position because of the pain or after days of brutal bloody diarrhea. I have to refer the patient to a proctologist who--at this stage--must use high-powered medication or even surgery.
Take a look at the video below by Dr. Michael Greger. Here he talks about the frequency of bowel movements. How are you doo-ing? Start the conversation with someone you love and trust but please think twice before leaving something in the Comments section.
2. They (sometimes) sh*t while squatting
If you're still reading I commend you. Still there's more going on in the latrine that gives Japan the edge when it comes to long life. Please bear with me.
Japanese toilets are awesome. Mine is unremarkable but others have heated seats, bidets and some even talk! It's a lot of bells and whistles. With all that's going on, the last thing a person wants to do is read something while doing their business.
Still, everyone here knows that it's the squatting position that's healthier and more effective. Squatting is how people all over the world have been doing it since the beginning of time. There is far less straining and it takes less time. Also anyone who has actually tried it will tell you that it works leg and back muscles that are not easily targeted in a normal workout. Again it's about balance.
Although it's very rare to find a squat toilet in a Japanese home, it's easy to find one in a public bathroom. They're here for the elderly who are used to the traditional squat toilets. These are the folks who have been squatting most of their lives. These are the folks who are loving life in their eighties and easily living to their nineties.
When I first came to Japan, nothing scared me more than a squat toilet but now whenever I see one I give it a go... unless I see a really cool, high-speed Japanese toilet nearby.
A squat toilet will probably be difficult to find if you live in the West. For a similar experience you'll have to go camping. Still if you ever see one in your travels don't be afraid. Give it a try.
1. They love nature
The Japanese have a special reverence for nature. Before I came here I didn't believe this. I thought Japan was all about mecha-robots and super-cars. But slow down and you'll see Shinto shrines full of native trees. You'll see a crane gliding above the nearby river.
Nature is good for us but you don't need a scientist to tell you that. Japanese people of all ages are walking by the local riverbanks or hiking in the forests. Nature is a small break from the stress of daily life. Even getting there and back gets the blood pumping.
There's a lot of gardening here as well. Not everyone has the land but those who do fill it with native trees and flowers. In the most crowded neighborhoods and communities you'll see that everyone squeezes in a few pots of vegetables or flowers.
How does gardening improve health? Aside from healthy fruits and veggies, the benefits are limitless: more mental health and physical exercise, fresh air, and stress relief just to name a few. It even got me to grow a couple tomato and pepper plants on my balcony!
What do you think?
What are you doing to live longer?
Takako Komori from Yokohama, Japan on March 05, 2020:
Your points regarding the longevity of the Japanese are quite valid. I am a Japanese citizen and the single most important factor is the diet. Japanese food is low in calory and contains less fat, even bacon. I lived in Canada for some years and I couldn`t believe the amount of grease that came out of the bacon when cooked!
Walking everywhere is another important factor in longevity. It is a very beneficial exercise and it`s free!
Not sure about central heating although it`s true most of us don`t have it.
Thank you for the insights!
Jennifer Lynn from USA on May 03, 2019:
Great Read thank you for the information.
Johanny Reynoso on May 01, 2019:
Very interesting article! Love Japanese culture!
Arthur Russ from England on February 05, 2019:
A very interesting article; apart from being a vegetarian e.g. I don’t eat fish, there’s so much in your article that I can relate to:-
#7, the British love walking, it’s now the number one outdoor leisure activity in the UK, closely followed by cycling.
#6, as it happens, I don’t wear any shoes at home either e.g. I prefer to go bare foot around the house.
#5, we don’t have air conditioning in the UK, just central heating over the winter months when necessary; but with Global Warming (warmer winters), and better insulated houses, we’re using central heating a lot less than we used to. Conversely, although our summers are getting hotter, at the moment we still just open the windows to get air flow when it hot.
#3, with a high roughage diet e.g. I grow most of our own vegetables, and we eat lots of fresh fruit, our bowl movements are regular, and healthy.
#1, as a Brit, I love nature; it ties in with the Brits passion for walking and cycling e.g. getting out into the countryside and enjoying the fresh air and tranquillity of the landscape.
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on February 09, 2015:
All the valid reasons why Japanese people have a longer and healthy life.
In fact this sounds quite convincing or should we say healthier ways of living.
Having green tea, walking barefoot and walking to work are all important points which should be adopted for a healthier life.
Thanks for sharing this interesting hub! Voted up!
Joy56 on February 08, 2015:
The Japanese have it right.... We are a spoilt nation, and it is killing us.....