ATMOS: Life In a Blue Zone: Okinawa and the Wisdom of Community

The island hangs like a green bead off the southern tip of Japan. Trimmed with white beaches and spreading banyan trees, it’s a place of long summers dominated by the thrum of cicadas. An orange-gold turmeric tea is a common local drink, a signature touch of a cuisine that blends Asian influences and has its roots in the time when this place, along with more than a hundred smaller islands, were their own kingdom with links to China and Southeast Asia. The island of Okinawa, subsumed into the Japanese empire in the late 1800s, has hung on to its differences. And it harbors a surprising demographic quirk. For many years, it has been home to one of the largest proportions of centenarians—people a century or more old—anywhere in the world.

It has not been an easy life. Many of these people were born well before World War II, into lean times when life expectancy was around 40. They survived the devastating American invasion of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, during whichvillagers were issued bombs by the Japanese military to commit mass suicide andcivilian casualties may have topped 100,000. They lived through the wrenching post-war years, the re-making of Japanese society, the decades-long American occupation of the islands, the rise and eventual fall of Japan as an economic powerhouse. For the most part, they lived well, finds the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a long-term study running since 1975 that interviews and assesses elders. Most centenarians in the study were functionally independent into their 90s.

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