From My Library: The Okinawa Program (2001)

Dear Readers,

Longevity is due to more than just healthy eating, it seems: having a sense of rootedness in your culture also plays a big part. Green tea is also good for becoming a centenarian, plus it's yummy!

Longevity is due to more than just healthy eating, it seems: having a sense of rootedness in your culture also plays a big part. Green tea is also good for becoming a centenarian, plus it's yummy!

This is my second time reading through this fascinating book, and I wanted to share it with y'all! (I originally reviewed it for my Best Books of 2014.)  

The great thing about books is that you can revisit them at various times in your life, and find that totally new parts of the book jump off the pages at you!  What resonated with me this time about The Okinawa Program was the authors' focus on the traditional Okinawan culture, and the role it plays in allowing the Okinawan elders to be consistently among the longest-lived people in the world.  

One thing I found particularly fascinating about their research of traditional Okinawan culture was their view of ancestors.  The Okinawans, like many tribal cultures throughout history (including the Cherokee), see themselves not as isolated individuals but as a link in the chain of a long line of revered ancestors who have gone before. In fact, the Okinawans even incorporate their ancestors into their spiritual practices, praying to them for health, asking for guidance, and frequently visiting their tombs to bring gifts of food.  The authors write:

In Okinawa, tombs are not eerie places as they are in North America, but rather cheery gathering spots for the living and the ancestors to meet regularly, catch up, and picnic...tombs are almost always close to living quarters and can be found just about anywhere—next door, in the fields, or in the backyard...this kind of everyday proximity to the deceased demystifies death for the Okinawans.  They regard it as an intrinsic part of life, a natural conclusion to earthly existence, and the beginning of a pleasurable journey to becoming a benevolent and protecting ancestor.

This sense of knowing where you belong, having defined cultural practices and spiritual beliefs, and having a real sense of those who came before you has to be incredibly grounding.  I think here in the United States we are really missing this...what shall I call it, perhaps "rootedness"?  A sense of family origins?

Y'all know I'm a genealogy nut, and I spent most of last winter poring over resources online and talking with extended family as part of a big genealogy project, learning  more about my family history.  What I learned about my own ancestors is that a) other than my Cherokee ancestor, they were all immigrants from various European countries, who showed up on these shores looking for new opportunities (which, tragically, came at the expense of the Native people living here); b) nearly all of them were poorly-educated farmers, housewives, or manual laborers; and c) they were a whole lot braver, tougher, stronger, and grittier than I am.  I found out about ancestors I'd never even heard of before, ones who everybody in my extended family had mostly forgotten about (within roughly two generations of their passing).  

My ancestors' graves (not including those in Europe) are scattered literally all over this country, from New York to Texas to Washington.  Some died in the Revolutionary War, others perished during the Civil War (and I had ancestors who fought for the North and the South, might I add).  Where were their stories all this time?  I'd heard of a fraction of these people from my parents and grandparents over the years.  These older ancestors were just forgotten, their lives and stories and loves and hopes and fears lost in the mists of time.

The Okinawans have beautiful cultural traditions of singing, dancing, and honoring their ancestors that keep them from forgetting who they are and where they came from.  That has to be significant in contributing to their legendary longevity.  The Okinawan centenarians who were studied in this 25-year project were lucky, in that most were born, married, and died in the same village, sometimes even in the same house.  Many spent their entire lives in a village where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone had shared cultural and spiritual beliefs.  Because of this, Okinawan elders have a high level of social connectedness, which gives them an active sense of purpose well into old age (they do not even have the concept of retirement in Okinawa, interestingly enough).  

Here in the United States, frequent moving is pretty much a given, which probably doesn't help our overall longevity (nor does our typical unhealthy diet, which the authors discuss at length in contrast to the plant-based diet of the Okinawan culture). Americans move all over the place seeking better education, better job opportunities, better pay, and so on.  Sometimes we find opportunity in the new town; other times, we don't.  

In the process, however, we pay a price: it's quite difficult to maintain close social connections when you're constantly moving (let alone make new ones).  A 2010 survey suggests that the average American has just two close friends they feel they can confide in. That's it.  I hope y'all have more than two!!  Seriously, what is the world coming to though (as this article points out, social isolation is a probable risk factor for increased rates of heart disease and stroke, among other badness, and isolation is really not good for the elderly).  

How much of this isolation is a result of our frequent relocations?

I'm a good case in point: as a military spouse, I move all over the country with my husband's assignments (we've averaged moving every two years over the past decade).  I end up alone in new towns quite often, sometimes knowing not a single soul in town (this is when my Mother hears daily from me, many times a day).  When we arrive, I'm never familiar with the local way of doing things, the lingo, or the cadence at which the locals do things (do they drive 20 miles UNDER the speed limit, or ABOVE it??).  I've made some funny (although not at the time) mistakes while trying to navigate the various cultures of each of the communities in which we've been stationed.  

Moving with the military has taught me a wonderful lesson, though, and that is how much having a sense of "rootedness" matters.  Being part of a community where you know people, where you feel at home and connected, is essential to our well-being as humans (job and educational opportunities aside).  While I may not have much geographic rootedness (in the sense of being able to live, marry and die in the same town), I have found a deep sense of rootedness, of belonging, in my ancestors.  While all their varied cultural and spiritual traditions may not have been passed down to me (I can't speak Irish and I'm not Catholic, for example), I've inherited a place I can call home among them, as a link in the long and fascinating chain of my family.  

Good news: you are a link in an ancient family chain, too.  If you're feeling disconnected from your community at the moment, now is a great time to start talking with your parents, your grandparents, and extended family (once you start researching your family tree you will be astounded at how many second-cousins-twice-removed you have).  Ask about your heritage.  If they don't know (or can't remember!), you can do the digging yourself on Google.  There are many folks interested in genealogy around the world, and they regularly contribute to sites like findagrave.com and ancestry.com.  You can even add your own knowledge to these resources, and help others who are looking for their roots! 

I can highly recommend The Okinawa Program for its thoughtful research on traditional Okinawan culture, and the role it plays in promoting a sense of connectedness (which then helps drive longevity).  The authors also devote a good chunk of the book to healthy eating habits, exercise, and stress-management techniques, all of which are great.  I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!

Yours Truly,

Sarah