Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians

Lessons from Japan’s Centenarians

Cultures outside of Japan have their ideas about what enables a long life: some attribute it to proper eating and sleeping, while others thank God for a strong will to live. But Ikigai takes things further and tells us that a broader sense of community, friendship, and connectivity is what ultimately keeps us all running.

The long-lived back in Ogimi, Okinawa focuses strongly on communal life and positive outlook. Their sense of belonging gives even mundane tasks a clear purpose, as those tasks support the community that they love. One example is the Okinawan tradition of moai, or hangout groups built around common interests. The practice dates back to a time when farmers banded together to sustain each other through bad harvests.

The members of any given moai depend on each other for emotional support, even paying a monthly fee to cover food and activity expenses for the group and share financial remainders equally with the group. Know- ing such a dependable support system is there for you at all times makes waking up in the morning that much easier. 

Gentle Movements, Longer Life

Another ikigai secret that won’t come as a surprise is that the elderly of Okinawa, well into their nineties and even beyond, remain active. One of the most important parts of the routines of the elderly in Japan is an exercise program that has been airing daily on the radio since before World War II.

Even nursing home residents do it for an average of five minutes a day. Radio exercises are basic, involving little more than a lifting of the arms and light bending of the knees, but the intention behind these movements — along with the increased blood flow and general happiness they promote
— are life-changing.

For those more agile and able, yoga provides the same benefits, as do tai chi, qigong, and shiatsu. Fundamental to all of these is deep breathing, which oxygenates the blood and strengthens overall health. Whatever method you choose, consistency is key.

Resilience and Wabi-Sabi

Ikigai is all about resilience, and the residents of Ogimi have it in spades. In their worldview, everyone has their mabui, or essence, which only increases over time when one has something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.

Ways to do this include:  

  • Creating redundancies by finding multiple sources of income so that if you lose one the others will have your back. 
  • Betting strategically, such as through small investments in multiple ventures rather than a large one with greater risk. 
  • Purging yourself of anything that makes you fragile, be it a substance, habit, or even a person.

Ikigai is practical for recognizing that life should be taken moment by moment, and in that spirit asks us to embrace “antifragility,” meaning that we are strengthened by that which doesn’t harm us. Tragedies on any level can be difficult to process, but one look at the unity they inspire is all we need to remind ourselves of the power of the human spirit. Resilience is, further, about avoiding cynicism. It’s about being stoic and controlling our emotions before emotions control us.

Think back on the worst events in your life, and you might just marvel at how well you’ve recovered from them. Such meditations are the essence of another Japanese concept called wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in that which is fleeting and imperfect. It tells us that being special entails bearing the scars to prove it. It means not only appreciating imperfection but seeking it out as an aesthetic way of life. 


Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
Héctor García, Francesc Miralles
ISBN-10: 0143130722
ISBN-13: 978-0143130727

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