3 Ways to Achieve Longevity the Okinawan Way

You should try three simple practices to stay well.

The young English attorney Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania’s Eastern European country to finish a real estate deal with Count Dracula. As the character makes his way through the countryside, the local peasants warn him about his destination. They give him charms against evil and utter words the lawyer later understands to mean vampire.

To Harker, the elderly Dracula is well-educated and friendly. Soon, the visitor realizes that he is a prisoner in the castle. Today, I offer you an alternative path to longevity (if not immortality). Rather than go through Transylvania to meet vampires, we go to the remarkable country of Japan.

In the rural northern Okinawan village of Ogimi, there’s a small stone marker with a few sentences written in Japanese.

“At 80, you are merely a youth. At 90, if your ancestors invite you into heaven, ask them to wait until you are 100 — then, you might consider it.”

We have long known about Japanese longevity. The Japanese have lower cancer rates, heart disease, and dementia than those in the United States. The Japanese have the longest life expectancy at birth in the world. Today, I want to share with you some characteristics that likely contribute to their health and longevity.

  • Enjoy social interactions. Did you know that the Japanese often have vibrant social circles, with firm commitments to family and friends? For example, moais are social support groups that began in Okinawa, Japan. Parents place young children into these small groups with other children with common interests. The group stays together throughout life. The participants walk with one another, talk together, garden together, eat together, and share life’s joys and challenging experiences. The members of the moai provide one another with lifelong support.
  • Embrace ikigai. Can you tell me why you get up each morning? Imbue your life with purpose. What are your values? What do enjoy doing? What do you do well?
  • Keep moving. Among older Okinawans, you will find plenty of gardeners and individuals who regularly walk. Enter an Okinawan home, and you may not see much furniture; folks take meals on tatami mats on the floor. By having to get up and down off the floor many times each day, they enhance their balance and lower body strength.
Photo by Jack Zhang on Unsplash

I find it fascinating that the Japanese do not typically work out hardcore at the gym. Some may practice yoga, but the dominant form of physical activity appears to be merely walking. Okinawans are fortunate to have abundant sun (and its associated vitamin D) and lean towards plant-based diets (with lots of tofu, stir-fried vegetables, and sweet potatoes. Maybe you can garden for healthy food, and a bit of activity! For me, it is a reminder that fitness does not always require vigorous exercise.

Are there other zones of longevity across the globe? The island of Okinawa, south of mainland Japan, is one. Different so-called blue zones, defined by National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner include:

  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, USA

I look forward to exploring these blue zones with you.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.
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