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Why Do Japanese People Live Longer? 7 Cultural Reasons Nobody Tells You

I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine in Kyoto Japan

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine in Kyoto Japan

Why Do Japanese People Live Longer?

The Japanese continue to live longer than all populations of the modern world. There are a lot of things going on to contribute to this. Some of them are simple. Once you know the basic Japanese health tips, you can apply them to your daily life and start seeing benefits almost immediately.

However, there are other factors that aren't so simple. These are unique to Japanese culture and policy. For that reason, you cannot apply these so easily. Even if you came here to Japan, they'd still be out of your reach. I'm an expat living in Japan. I've been here for years, and I still feel left out.

These reasons are covered in this article. Why bother if they are of no use to you? Simply put, I might be wrong. Maybe they are useful to you. Either way, take a look, and you can tell me.

What You Can Do in the Meantime:

Hold on. Whether or not anything in this article will help you, there are simple things you can do as soon as you're finished reading (and sharing) it to live longer and happier. We all know them but still have a hard time applying them. Let's all try to:

  • Eat healthier (hint: more fruits and vegetables!)
  • Eat less junk food
  • Get more exercise
  • Manage stress
  • Build/maintain healthy relationships
  • Don't smoke (or don't start)

These are just a few of the basics. If we get started with these, we're on our way. That said, here are Japanese things that are (probably) out of your reach but interesting to know.

7. They Love to Laugh (Together)

Japanese people of all ages love to laugh. They love corny puns, jokes and so on. Wait...doesn't everyone love to laugh?

Here, it's different. Compared to most other countries, the people of Japan are mostly homogeneous: same race, religion, language, history and so on. That means it's fairly easy for comedians to come up with good material for a large audience that won't offend too many people.

Also, because most humor appeals to most people, Japanese people laugh as a family. Almost every night, a family can count on a couple hours of safe laughs on television. On holidays such as New Year's Eve, a comedy show can go on for hours.

Laughter is the best medicine. It has a variety of physical and mental health benefits. A small smirk after watching a blooper on YouTube doesn't count as laughter. Laughter is loud. Laughter is refreshing. In Japan, they do it right.

6. Shikata Ga Nai: It Can't Be Helped

"Shikata ga nai," is a common Japanese saying. In English, it is translated as "it can't be helped." It reflects how the Japanese face tragedy and hardship but survive despite it.

In an island nation, there is nowhere to run. So, there's "Shikata ga nai." Just to be clear, this doesn't mean "I surrender." It means "No matter what happens, there is no denial--pick up the pieces and win."

A lot of people talk about Japan and World War II. What they forget is that almost every country was devastated by that war. Within a couple of decades, these countries prospered as Japan did. I'm talking about something different.

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Since ancient times, the Japanese have dealt with earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Also, there's a rainy season in the summer followed by a typhoon season in the early autumn.

Needless to say, this attitude comes in handy when dealing with adversity on any level. No matter how tough things get on an individual level, a sudden earthquake puts everything into perspective and reminds us all how fortunate we really are.

Miniature daruma at Katsuoji Temple in Minoh, Japan

Miniature daruma at Katsuoji Temple in Minoh, Japan

5. Conformity

Like many Asian countries, Japan has a mostly conformist culture. That means rule breakers are few and lawbreakers are even fewer. That may seem stifling to some, but it can save lives.

Before a local risks doing something stupid, his values kick in, and he snaps out of it. Even a stern look from a group of whispering oba-chans (old ladies) is enough to scare him out of it.

Conformity is even tougher for parents who must keep up appearances. No, we can't have our [whoever] get involved with [whatever]! What would the neighbors say? How can I face them? We have to put a stop to this!

Judge all you want, but this saves lives. Things like drug abuse and alcohol dependency can be caught and challenged soon. Shame keeps everyone in line, on the straight and narrow.



4. Obesity Is Dangerous

Obesity is a killer all over the world. The problem is only getting worse. I won't go over how dangerous it is or the numerous health problems it can lead to. For that, take a look at the photo above.

Even though it's been growing steadily recently, obesity is rare in Japan. There are many reasons the locals here are skinnier, including conformity. Another reason you won't hear about is that obesity is simply not tolerated.

The Japanese look at obesity with the same toxic animosity as Americans do. However, unlike America, this view isn't likely to change. Somehow, it's OK to be offensive towards the obese. Somehow, it's OK to whisper behind their back. There is no "fat pride." There is no excuse.

It's common for friends, relatives or even coworkers to directly call them on it. "Hey, are you gaining weight?" is fair game. This question is not meant to be hurtful; it's meant to be addressed with an immediate explanation.

3. Wellness in the Workplace

When the West thinks of work in Japan, they probably think of commutes that last hours, killer stress and hours that literally drive workers to suicide. Look closer and you'll see more when it comes to working in Japan.

Mandatory physical exams by Japanese companies are common, especially in large corporations and within the government. This is usually done annually. Workers are assets. Healthy workers are more productive than sick ones. In other countries, workers might see this as an invasion of privacy. Here, it's just sound business policy.

Mandatory exercise before work is also common. It is mandatory, aerobic, and in formation. This lasts about ten to fifteen minutes, just long enough to get the blood flowing. Regular exercise has countless physical and mental health benefits even if it isn't intense.

Most Japanese companies have these policies but all acknowledge the relationship between good health and productivity. Where does this philosophy start?

2. Physical Education

Exercise and sports are important parts of Japanese culture. This appreciation starts very early in preschool. The video above is an excellent example of this. This is a traditional dance during a high school sports festival. The music is a folk song known as "Soran Bushi."

These students aren't professionals. The school pride and enthusiasm is real. They trained for months--just for this event. Other events include relay race, tug of war and many others. Sports festivals are held at least once a year by all schools: preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school.

This attitude doesn't end at school. From the Olympics to professional baseball to the local 5k, the Japanese love sports. However, the Japanese are not only spectators. The locals are not afraid to sweat.

The government doesn't get in the way. Japan even has a national holiday dedicated to exercise. Known as "Taiiku no hi" (Health and Sports Day in English), the communities hold sports events and the people get physical.

Sakaemachi Street in Ikeda Japan

Sakaemachi Street in Ikeda Japan

1. Local Business and Community

One important thing to look at is what the elderly Japanese actually do in their later years. They are busy. Most are active in hobbies, learning languages or involved with the community festivals. Some old timers do what they've always been doing: working.

Above is Sakaemachi Street: a shopping arcade in Ikeda, a small city close to Osaka, Japan. Most small business owners here are middle-aged are, but many are old. The old-timers have been here for over forty years. Sakaemachi Street is just an example. There are elderly business owners throughout Japan.

Work means responsibility to the community, maintaining relationships with customers, basic math as well as managing long-term and immediate goals. All this keeps the gears turning. Extra money is good too.

The Japanese have no problem retiring from jobs if they wish. This is thanks to generous government programs as well as disciplined saving throughout life. The ones who keep working usually do so by choice.

What Do You Think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: How easy is it to make a transition to living in another country - as an American Expatriate - as you put it?

Answer: It depends on a number of things. Where are you moving? How well do you know the language? Do you know anyone there? How much money do you have saved? And so on. Wherever you go, it won't be easy, but it will be possible. In the end, as long as you keep an open mind and try to make friends, it will be fine.

Did I Miss Something? Let Me Know!

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on November 07, 2019:

Thank you. This is an amazing amount information.

Fin from Barstow on December 08, 2018:

Some interesting observations. I think especially that you point out the homogeneous culture as an influence. I work in a prison and one of the inmates said that the programs in European countries for the incarcerated are successful is because the cultural makeup has a major influence.

But to get back to this article, the attributes you mention - healthy eating, exercise, good attitudes are definitely things to strive for.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on November 30, 2018:

I've been living in Japan for five years and I agree with everything you said. When my husband is upset about something, we say "sho ga nai" (an alternative way to "shikata ga nai") and he can calm down about it.

I live in an apartment and right outside it is a fire station. Every morning at 8:30, the firemen get outside and exercise together. I like watching them for... reasons!

There is a lot of pressure to be slim. I've lost weight since being here because it's depressing walking round and seeing tiny women everywhere only to look at yourself in the mirror and only see flab. It's also annoying when the only clothes that fit you are from western stores. However, there's a downside to this: Japan also has a worryingly high anorexia rate. However, is this any worse than a high obesity rate? I'm not sure.

Another reason for low obesity is the lack of additives in their food. Even if you get some "junk" food you'll still be getting vegetables and rice with your meal.

I love living here and I learned a lot from your article as well. Thank you so much for sharing!

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on October 10, 2018:

Excellent article about a beautiful and wonderful place, Japan. I particularly remember how American auto companies learned something important from the Japanese car makers - The Unions and the management work together for the good of the business. That was part of the reason GM formed Geo and Saturn with Toyota and the other Japanese auto makers. There is much to say about harmony.

Indeed, conformity does not mean a stifling of creativity. The Japanese "laugh" the right way, as you pointed out.

Having several Japanese friends, this article helped me better tune into their way of thinking of the world and how to be a better friend to them in the U.S. I hope to visit that country someday.

Much respect and admiration for a well written article,



Daniella Lopez on October 03, 2018:

Excellent article. I've always been fascinated by Japanese culture. Thanks for sharing!

Thea Abella from Philippines on September 20, 2018:

Japan is the most developed country among asian countries

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