Ikigai, Okinawa and The Longevity Buzz

The internet and social media is ablaze with ikigai again thanks to the Netflix series Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, but is Okinawa the land of immortals or Japan’s least healthy prefecture?

The answer appears to be both.

In episode one, The Journey Begins, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buetter travels to Okinawa, Japan where the island’s oldest residents still enjoy a serene way of life motivated by a sense of purpose, or ikigai. 

Buettner describes Okinawa as the land of the immortals as it has produced the longest lived population in human history stating “they have a fraction the rate of diabetes, one fifth the rate of heart disease and very little dementia. And they are making it to 100 at a rate far surpassing the United States.”

It was with delight that I watched centenarian, 101 years young Umeto Yamashiro play Quoits, throwing rubber rings over an inclined board of spikes with incredible dexterity and accuracy.

Umeto’s advice for living a long life was;

  • Always have fun.
  • Don’t get angry.
  • Have fun with everyone.
  • Make everyone happy.
  • Laughter brings us longevity 

You might want to heed her advice, at 101 she can sing and play the shamisen, a three-stringed traditional Japanese music instrument, with great precision. She can even dance while balancing a large sake bottle on her head. 

Buettner noted “To have that cognitive ability, that vitality, that positiveness, all in one package. I look at her and say “I want that.” 

I want it, too. And I’m sure you do, too.

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How to live to be 100+

In 2009, Dan Buettner delivered a TED Talk entitled How to live to be 100+. In his presentation, he discussed ‘blue zones’ (also the topic of his book by the same name): the five places in the world that had the highest concentration of centenarians, where people lived the longest, and where residents were the healthiest: Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California – and Okinawa, Japan. 

Buettner linked Okinawan lifespan to diet, lifestyle, and the then little-known concept of ikigai that he helped to introduce to a Western audience. He said: ‘In the Okinawan language there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is “ikigai”. And, roughly translated, means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”’

Ever since, Westerners have had a tendency to (inappropriately) connect ikigai to longevity in general and to the longevity of Okinawans in particular. You can find these references in many books, other TED Talks, and thousands of blog posts, which have perpetuated this myth. 

In the Netflix episode ,Buettner again makes the claim of an ikigai and longevity connection.

“There is this concept in Okinawa called ikigai. And I believe that it is one of the most powerful factors contributing to their longevity”

He also notes that Okinawans have no word for retirement. When they get to 60, 70, 80 , 90 they’re still working, offering examples of gardening daily or running a market stall.

Are we being misled?

Unfortunately, Buettner is misleading us a little. While it may be true that Uchinaaguchi, the indigenous language of Okinawa, has no word for ‘retirement’, ikigai is not a word from Okinawa, but, rather, a common word in the Japanese language. 

Most Japanese would indicate that ikigai is something they feel rather than talk about; if they do discuss it, they discuss it in the same nonchalant way as they might discuss their hobbies – and, for many Japanese, their ikigai is their hobby, which may make the concept seem not all that unique or special. 

And for some Japanese, ikigai can be a vice, alcohol or cigarettes, that acts as a coping mechanism to help them get through their stressful days.

However, it is clear that many Okinawan centenarians do report having a strong sense of ikigai – as explored in this episode and in the international best-selling book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles.

Although this by no means indicates that ikigai is a secret life hack to become a youthful centenarian, it does raise the question of whether and how ikigai might influence physical health and wellbeing. 

This is something I explored with Dr Yasuhiro Kotera, the Associate Professor in Mental Health at the University of Nottingham. Kotera and his colleagues investigated the health benefits of ikigai, finding evidence that a strong sense of ikigai may reduce ‘allostatic load’ –  wear and tear on the body: 

‘In one of the first prospective studies to explore the biological impact of having a greater sense of purpose in life, Zilioli and colleagues (2015) investigated its associations with allostatic load over a ten-year period. Allostatic load is defined as the physiological burden experienced by the body in response to adjusting to external challenges (i.e., stress). The organism manages stress through simultaneous changes in the cardiovascular, autonomic, neuroendocrine, immune, and metabolic systems. Frequent and prolonged activations of these systems increase allostatic load in the organism, which has been positively associated with greater risk of illness, cognitive decline, and mortality. Zilioli et al. (2015) found evidence to suggest that people with greater life purpose reported stronger beliefs that they had control over their health, and were found to have lower levels of allostatic load at follow-up. Interventions that increase one’s ikigai could therefore provide similar benefits.’ -1

 In my conversation with Kotera, he explained that ikigai can reduce the tiredness and fatigue that can lead to conditions such as cardiovascular disease and other stress-related health problems. 

Kotera also said that people who have ikigai are likely to engage in self-care behaviours such as exercise and healthy eating (as described by Buettner in his TED Talk), which further reduce the likelihood of poor health. There is also a virtuous cycle whereby those who take better care of themselves have better mental health, and better mental health leads to healthier behaviours. 

What Buettner Left Out

Okinawa is Now Japan’s Least Healthy Prefecture!

Tragically, today Okinawa is now the least healthy prefecture in all of Japan. On the Rich Roll podcast in March of 2020, Buettner revealed that due to the introduction of the Western diet, Okinawa has suffered the worst degeneration of all five Blue Zones, and now has the highest rates of obesity and diabetes. What was once the island of longevity is now Japan’s fast-food capital. 

“The place that has been hit the worst is Okinawa…I first went there in 1999….At the time it was producing the longest lived people in the history of the world. Now it is the least healthy prefecture in all of Japan. It’s got the highest rates of obesity, the highest rates of diabetes, and it has undergone the worst degeneration of any of the Blue Zones.”


What You Can Learn From The Netflix Episode

Medicinal Foods

Eat purple sweet potatoes. The biggest take away from this episode might be to eat a lot of beni-imo, purple sweet potatoes. In the 1950’s almost 70% of the Okinawan diet caloric intake was from beni-imo. Purple sweet potatoes are full of complex carbohydrates and fibre and have 150% more of the antioxidants than blueberries do.

But it is their whole diet which includes an array of foods that hold medicinal properties or health benefits, such as Mulberry leaves, squid ink, seaweed mugwort, that fuel the years of these centenarians. 

Caloric Density

Eat nutrient dense foods instead of caloric dense foods. Their foods, tofu, goya, sweet potatoes, cabbage are nutritionally dense yet low on calories allowing them to satisfying large appetites without putting on the pounds.

Buettner excitedly reports:    "So in America ,for lunch we might eat a little hamburger and we can woof that down in a minute for two, but in Okinawa, lunch might be this chumpuru or this stirfry, nice herbs and tofu, and they can just indulge in this huge pile of food...but that has fewer calories than a hamburgers does."

Hara Hachi Bu - 腹八分

Practice "hara hachi bu". They consume only 2,000 calories a day practising a protocol called “hara hachi bu”, eating to a point where your stomach is only 80% full.

腹八分 - Stomach 8 parts full

腹 = Hara = stomach

八= Hachi = 8

分=  Bu = part

Buettner claims that these three words “hara hachi bu” are intoned before each meal, but I doubt all Okinawans say this. Being Japanese, they would more likely say ‘itadakimasu’ before a meal.

The Japanese language has many greetings and set expressions that are used daily in the home and workplace, and when eating meals. These phrases create a communication flow that maintains harmonious relationships – a high priority in a culture that values the virtues of respect and gratitude. 

Two common expressions that are spoken by millions of Japanese multiple times a day are ‘itadakimasu’ (said before a meal, indicating, ‘I'm gratefully receiving’) and ‘gochisosama deshita’ (said after a meal, and meaning, approximately, ‘I’ve eaten and I’m grateful’). These phrases teach children and remind adults of the importance of appreciating their meal and eating everything they have been given down to the last rice grain.

Balance

Get rid of your furniture. Okinawa’s centenarians are incredibly mobile and have great balance spending more time sitting on tatami mats than sofas or chairs. This means they regularly move their bodies, bending their knees, to get down to and up off the floor up to thirty times a day. This movement they can do with ease is something some of us might struggle with.

And gardening seems to be their hobby of choice which gives them several hours of daily gentle low intensity exercise. These hours spent in the garden helps maintain their full range of motion, lower body strength and balance.

Moai

Have a circle of friends. Moai is a committed social circle where members pool their money and help each other in times of hardship. While it is a financial agreement of sorts the real benefit of a moai is the social interactions where members, friends, get together to chat, sing and dance together. Human connection is the real benefit of a moai..

Ikigai

Have something in your life that gives you a sense of purpose. Buettner talks with an old man who appears to be a retired doctor. He shared the following:

‘Ikigai is a kind of mission. A sense of purpose. I think iIkigai is the main factor of the spiritual health of the centenarians. If we lose the ikigai, we will die.’

Buettner adds to this stating:

‘They’re keeping their minds engaged, they’re keeping bodies moving. They could sum up their life meaning, the reason for which they wake up in the morning. They’re told constantly that “You count. We need you!” People imbued with this constant sense of purpose, they know their values and it makes those day to day decisions very easy because you know your core.’

Romanticising ikigai

I personally believe that ikigai gives you motivation to live and perhaps can add some years to your life, but I don’t think we can call it the secret to longevity. T

While pleasant to imagine, romanticising ikigai as merely a tranquil lifestyle restricted to one Japanese island prevents us from discovering what ikigai truly is and how it manifests in, and impacts on, Japanese culture.

Likewise, it is diminished if we simply think of it as the secret to longevity; after all, while ikigai can give you the motivation to live, and make your life more meaningful, it can’t guarantee that you’ll live to be 100.

In short, their diet, an active lifestyle, strong social connections, a playful nature and having something to live for seems to be the reasons for these centenarians' longevity. This is certainly a lifestyle and attitude we could all adopt in part. Let's start by eating some purplse sweet potatoes.

One final point, in all my conversations with Japanese ikigai researchers and my many Japanese friends, not one ever mentioned ikigai as being something to do with longevity.
  1. Kotera, Y., Kaluzeviciute, G., Garip, G., McEwan, K., & Chamberlain, K.J. (2021). 'Health benefits of ikigai: A review of literature.' In Y. Kotera & D. Fido (Eds.). 'Ikigai: Towards a psychological understanding of a life worth living'. Ontario, Canada: Concurrent Disorders Society Publishing, pp. 1-13.
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