Japan's island of longevity
Big-city stress and fast food are threatening the way of life in a village that produces scores of healthy seniors.
You could never accuse Ushi Okushima of acting her age. She giggles, she gossips, she toils for hours in the fields, and strolls along the seashore.
It is not bad for a 103-year-old great grandmother 24 times over who was born in the 19th century while the emperor Meiji ruled godlike over Japan.
But it is not particularly unusual either in Ogimi a hamlet in the north of Okinawa where scientists say that the diet, climate, and way of life produce more centenarians than anywhere else in the world.
Ogimi certainly feels like a Shangri-La. Nestled between the topaz blue waters of the East China Sea and dark green hills of dense jungle, it is close to paradise on earth.
Okinawans are the longest living people in the world, according to the World Health Organization. There are about 35 centenarians for every 100,000 people, a rate that is three times higher than in Europe or the United States.
But even in Okinawa, Ogimi is special. Although it is the poorest village in the poorest prefecture of Japan, its residents enjoy a remarkable quality and length of life.
Three of the hamlet's 3,500 residents are centenarians, while dozens of others are in their nineties. Scientists say that quality of life and longevity are related.
"There is no one factor most important for longevity," Bradley Wilcox, a geriatrics fellow at Harvard Medical School told The Detroit Free Press recently. "It's a balance between factors, like four legs of a chair." He cites diet, exercise, spiritual well-being, and social factors.
Dr. Wilcox says that he's "never seen a place where people dance so much."
Indeed, with increasing frequency, the community celebrates "Kajimayaa" spectacular parties for those who turn 97. This is the age at which Okinawans believe they return to their childhood. To mark it, the elderly are given a certificate, a monetary prize from the government, and are driven around the village in an open-topped car decorated with plastic pinwheels.
Unlike many of the other decaying rural communities in Japan, Ogimi also attracts many young families who move to the area for the environment, the close social ties, and the prospect of a long life.
International gerontologists point to Okinawa as a whole and Ogimi in particular as a model for long life. But Okinawans fear that their idyllic way of life will be spoiled by too much contact with the outside world and the advance of modernization.
"We have a tradition of taking life easy and helping one another out," says Yasuo Inafuku, the deputy director of health and welfare for the Okinawan prefectural government. "But this is steadily fading. It seems that communications are so fast now that we are importing stress from Tokyo."
Rising stress levels have pushed up suicide rates. And the spread of fast-food outlets is changing the diet in ways that doctors say is unhealthy. The Japanese government reports that Okinawa has the fastest growing rate of lung cancer in the country. It cites the rapid increase in tobacco consumption as the cause.
"Modernization helped to increase life expectancy for 30 years, but now it has gone too far," says Craig Willcox, a gerontologist who was the co-author of "The Okinawa Program," which hit the bestseller lists in the United States last year.
The villagers in Ogimi also feel the outside world encroaching on their idyll. For decades, their community was so remote that they were forced to grow and cook their own food, but they now have a new road that connects them to the densely populated cities in the south of the island.
A couple of years ago, they also got their first convenience store which brings the mixed blessings of frozen food and instant meals.
"The young people of the village are happy that they no longer need to cook," says Teruya Rinjo, the mayor of Ogimi. "But the old folk tell them to keep away from all that instant rubbish.... We must teach our kids that convenience can be bad for you."