Humanity’s Oldest Village Fights to Stay Fit

OGIMI, Japan ~ At 105 years old, Ushi Okushima can still down a swig of 30-proof local liquor and take to the dance floor as her daughters clap their hands with delight.

As the healthiest centenarian in humanity’s oldest town, Ushi is used to frequent visitors, not only from Japan but the world over, who want to discover her secrets to a long, joyful life.

Wearing a dark brown kimono that complements her tawny skin and shock of thick white hair, Ushi laughs and waves her arms as she goes through the steps of the island’s folkdance.

“She loves giving energy to the people who visit her and tell her, ‘I have come to receive energy from you, Big Mother,'” said her daughter Kikue, 79.

Ogimi, a seaside village on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa nestled between turquoise waters and forested hills, was declared in 1987 to have Japan’s highest proportion of healthy elderly people per capita.

In 1996, the World Health Organisation declared it humanity’s oldest village.

But even as others come to admire Ogimi, demographers are worried that this mini Shangri-La is increasingly at risk, as hectic lifestyles and junk food gradually penetrate the Okinawan lifestyle.

Japan as a whole has one of the world’s oldest populations and is also battling a declining birth rate. Earlier this year, 114-year-old Japanese woman Yone Minagawa became the world’s oldest person.

The subtropical archipelago of Okinawa, with a total population of about 1.3 million, has 55 centenarians per 100,000 people, the highest ratio in the world.

One third of Ogimi’s 3,500 people are older than 65, and 11 are centenarians, mostly women. No one is in hospital and only 50 senior citizens live in retirement homes. The rest live either independently or with family members.

“I have never been to a hospital in my life,” said Ushi. “But doctors tell me, ‘come to the hospital just to chat.'”

It is not unusual to see nonagenerians or centenarians strolling through the village early in the morning, and perky, strong-willed but half-deaf women barking at one another over lunchtime tea and gossip.

Ushi – a widow with 13 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren – is far from senile and remains the matriarch of her large family.

“I tell them to cut their hair if it is too long or wear longer skirts if they are too short,” she said.

Admitting she is a flirt, she said she would like to have a boyfriend. “That is why I powder my face, oil my hair and spray myself with perfume that a Frenchman gave me!” she laughed, clapping her hands.

Even those centenarians who are not lucky enough to be surrounded by family remain active and mentally alert.

“I have never rested in my life, not even now,” said Matsu Taira, 100, as she bit into a rock of hard black sugar, an Okinawan sweet.

The walls of Matsu’s home are covered with awards for longevity, and though she says she has no secrets for a long life, she adds: “I do everything by myself” – including cooking the vegetables she tends in her garden plot across the street.

Ogimi is different from the island’s other villages and cities in that its inhabitants mainly eat the vegetables they grow, said Ogimi’s mayor.

“They are able to find many different kinds of vegetables and fruit nearby at hand – they simply need to reach out their hands to grab them,” said Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, 69.

Balanced Lives

Okinawa has long fascinated researchers, anthropologists and journalists wishing to discover the elixir of life.

But for Okinawans, the explanation is simple – balance.

“We liken it to four legs of a chair. You need to have four legs to find balance – diet, exercise, psycho-spiritual factors as well as social factors,” said Craig Willcox, professor of medical anthropology at Okinawa Prefectural University College of Nursing.

“Okinawa has a very good combination of all these factors not seen elsewhere,” he added.

Moreover, apart from the healthy diet in vegetables, whole grains and low salt intake, these centenarians show remarkable resistance to stress and see the sunny side of every situation.

Okinawa was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II in which some 200,000 people died, half of whom were civilians. Most of Ogimi’s men were wiped out, according to a memorial in the village.

To survive the war “you had to be strong physically and psychologically,” said Willcox.

“So a lot of these people who lived through that experience are very strong people,” he said. “They have stress-resistant personalities. They have this attitude where they are able to get over loss, which doesn’t kill them.”

Matsu lost a daughter during the war, but said she tries not to think about the past, even if walking around familiar paths brings back memories.

“These centenarians rarely look back on their past and are fundamentally optimistic,” said Makoto Suzuki, a doctor who has been researching centenarians for 30 years.

Traditional Lifestyle

Although Ushi and Matsu continue to laugh, drink and tend their vegetable gardens, village officials are worried that the tradition of longevity is being chipped away.

Younger people are moving out into bigger cities and so the elderly have fewer people to whom they can pass on their culinary and dietary habits, Ogimi’s mayor said.

“I am very worried that this culture might disappear, because the lifestyle is changing and the desire to live of these elderly is slowly running low,” said Shimabukuro.

“The healthy elderly are part of this village’s heritage, and we would like to tell people that if they want to learn how to live long and healthy, come to Ogimi,” he said.

“We would like to link our pride in having healthy elderly to our strategy to attract tourists,” he added.

Posters of a grinning Ushi holding a goya, a bitter gourd common in Okinawan cuisine, are displayed in shops everywhere, including the supermarket where she works twice a week weighing bags of fruit and vegetables for customers.

Despite the posters and the mayor’s attempts to expand interaction between the elderly and youngsters through volunteer activities, the measures appear insufficient to inculcate the young in the island’s ancestral habits.

Okinawa has the country’s largest concentration of fast-food restaurants, brought in first by the United States, which ruled the island from 1945 to 1972 and continues to station some 20,000 troops here.

As younger people head out to the cities, on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan, they often leave behind the dietary habits and lifestyles of their elders in favor of fast food, busy working lives and a culture of driving everywhere instead of walking.

As a result, they fall prey to obesity and cardiac diseases, thereby cutting short the chances for youngsters to live beyond a century like Ushi.

According to the Okinawa Prefecture’s health division, the life expectancy of Okinawan men has fallen from 10th among Japan’s 47 prefectures in 1975 to 26th in 2000.

Japanese women generally outlive their male compatriots and Okinawan women top the longevity rankings, although they are gradually slipping compared to the rest of the country, said a health official.

“For the growing number of working women, they no longer have the time to cook healthy food for themselves nor for their children, who now substitute their school lunches with fast food,” said Tamiko Fukuyama of the prefecture’s health division.

Although the prefecture is campaigning for healthy eating habits through advertising, researchers worry it may be too late.

If things continue as they are now, the tradition of longevity “could disappear within the next 20 to 30 years,” Willcox warned.

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