Do the Japanese live long lives because they are obedient?
Very often, articles in the international media present Japan’s ageing population as a problem. Some writers complain about Japan for its weak and feeble elderly, pointing out that the rising cost of healthcare for the old is an economic problem which leaves Japan with enormous debts.
So it was refreshing to read a much more positive editorial comment piece in the Times this week, entitled In 21st-century Japan, 90 is way too young to retire.
The article begins: “If you are still alive and fit at 93, you might as well do something with your time. This is part of what compels Jun Takahashi to keep taking his Cessna on joyrides round Mount Fuji.”
There’s a compelling portrait of the pilot in a series called Spirit and Spine ‘(Kitohone’) which provides in English the personal histories of Japanese seniors who continue to work actively.
Mr Takahashi is a lovely example of what I call Japan’s Powerful Old – a subject I made a series about for the BBC.
When it comes to the very old, Japan boasts 61,000 centenarians – four times as many as Britain. This longevity is an achievement that has followed the Second World War. Since, 1950 the proportion of people surviving to 100 has risen 600 fold. In Britain it has risen by a much lower factor of 140.
One of the things that struck me about the Times article was its suggestion that the Japanese may live longer than the British not because of genes but because of wise lifestyle choices.
The Times says “The Japanese are more willing than most to be lectured on public health.” It points out that in the longest lived prefecture in the country, Nagano, farmers have been asked to cut the salt content in their pickled vegetables, known as tskemono.
Messages about having a healthy diet seem to be heeded, because Japan has a low obesity rate, even though there are an abundance of sugary snacks and potato chips on sale in vending machines and kiosks.
The value of regular exercise was entrenched in the Japanese mindset during the post war industrial boom with morning movement classes obligatory for workers of every grade. When Japanese firms tried to adopt such practices in their foreign plants, most westerners scorned and refused to comply.
And in Britain, when faced with advice to slim down and do more exercise, the resistance to being “lectured” remains strong. For example, the papers this week reported a study by Boston University which suggested losing weight in middle age would help people avoid Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
In an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph that is designed to be amusing and ironic, Charlotte Leather says she will ignore the advice from the medical researchers because people who do exercise in their 40s are “airheads”.
“So, must I now, while I can still remember, get up at the crack of dawn, don the padded cycle pants and start spinning like a washing machine on full blast? Or do I take my mother’s advice and grow old gracefully, accepting that middle-aged spread is a little part of life and, well, a large part of my middle. Even if it ups my chances of dementia?”
The columnist is skilful in identifying the way in which many British people think about such issues.
One area where health advice does not seem to be particularly effective in Japan is smoking. The smoking rate among Japanese men is more than 30 percent (it is much lower among women). In the UK, it is about 19 percent.
However, while smoking in public places is allowed in Japan, here in Britain another step to reduce the level of addiction takes place next month, when tobacco branding is banned and cigarettes are sold in plain packaging instead.