Wisdom and Long Life in Northern Okinawa
OGIMI VILLAGE, Okinawa -- Drive north on Highway 58 and eventually a small cluster of buildings comes into view. Located short steps from the ocean, sea salt permeates the air and lush hills cover the horizon. In just about any direction, pristine blue-green water and bright green jungle dominate the view.
This area is part of a village called Ogimi; population 3,232. Nearly one thousand people living here are over the age of 65 and one of those is 82-year-old Hideko Yamashiro. Her family and friends refer to her as “Okan,” an endearing term that loosely means grandmother.
Like many Ogimi residents, Okan remains very active and spends hours working in her garden or visiting with friends and family. She also plays a lot of what locals call “Stick ball” or croquet. Although she has endured many hardships, she remains resilient and optimistic.
“I love seeing my children and grandchildren happy and healthy,” said Okan.
Her eyes light up as a toddler wanders into the tatami room where she’s sitting. She smiles at him and asks how he’s doing. The little boy smiles back and giggles, then wanders off to the kitchen. Her house is filled with laughter and sounds of children playing. In the kitchen, a few of Okan’s five grown children are cooking and chatting about the day.
Doctor Craig Willcox has studied the longevity of Okinawans for many years. He and other researchers have concluded that the island’s unique diet, which includes plenty of seaweed, tofu and raw vegetables, plays a key role in prolonging their lives. Another study looked at an Okinawan population that had migrated to Brazil and compared their eating habits to local Okinawans. Overall, those who still lived in Okinawa consumed seven times more fish than their Brazilian counterparts and they also ate more soy products like tofu. Furthermore, the Okinawans living in Brazil ate 34 percent more meat than those on Okinawa. Researchers discovered that not only did they eat more meat, but they also lived shorter lives on average than those still on Okinawa.
“I love tofu, goya and spinach; anything I can grow really,” said Okan.
She also grows a local vegetable called Daikon. Okan works in her small garden every day and she says she enjoys being close to nature.
Born on Saipan in 1933, Okan grew up on the small island of Rota, which is part of the Northern Mariana Islands. She fondly remembers playing with her siblings on the nearby beautiful beaches and helping her parents, who were originally from Ogimi. Before World War II, many Okinawans relocated to Rota to find work at the phosphate mines.
Okan vividly remembers the war reaching Rota and how she hid in caves with her parents during allied bombing runs. She also remembers how hungry they all were.
“Before the war, there was no food,” she explains. “On Rota, we would eat the local fruit that grew in the jungle.”
When the war ended, Okan and her family moved backed to Ogimi Village. Her parents planted various vegetables and local sweet potatoes.
“We were still so hungry that we would dig up the sweet potatoes before they had fully grown then eat them a little bit and replant them,” Okan said. “In those days, the potatoes never grew very big because we just couldn’t wait to eat them”
She laughs with ease at the memory.
Doctor Willcox has specifically studied the people of Ogimi Village and he says that, “These people have not led stress free lives; they’ve experienced the horrors of war, most of them were poor and had to work very hard throughout their lives, but they’ve developed this a kind of psychological resilience.”
Willcox also says that same resilience is a factor that has helped Okinawan’s and the people of Ogimi live such long lives.
The impact of the battle of Okinawa is staggering. An article by PBS estimates that more than 100,000 civilian lives were lost in the battle. American military deaths totaled more than 12,000 and Japanese military deaths nearly 70,000. Nearly every family on Okinawa was affected by the war and the island was destroyed. According to Okan, after the war, “We did what we had to do to survive as a village and a family,” she said.
In her late teens, Okan found work on Okinawa as a maid for a family in Koza. One day, her mother and her future mother-in-law came to pick her up; it was time to get married. She had not met her husband yet.
“Arranged marriages were common back then,” said Okan.
She was married in 1950 at age 18 to a man named Kakusei Yamashiro. They would stay together for more than sixty years and raise five children in Ogimi. Her husband passed away in 2013. Up until his death, friends and family called him “Oji,” a term of endearment that means grandfather.
Although Okan and her family have lived on the same property since the 50s, her house has been rebuilt three times.
“The first blew down during a typhoon in the fifties,” she said. “Then when they built Route 58, we had to tear it down again.”
Three years ago the house was rebuilt for the final time.
“I’m happy I have a new house to pass on to my children,” Okan said.
She recalls struggling for many years after she got married.
“After the first house was destroyed, I went back to work for the family in Koza to make money,” Okan said.
She pauses to look down at the young boy, who looks to be about two-years-old; he’s come back into the tatami room. The boy smiles at her and reaches out his hand. Okan grabs it and gently pats his back.
“Family is everything,” she said. “Family is the reason we get up in the morning and why we do everything.”
Okinawans often talk about having a purpose to wake up; it’s called “ikigai.” Okan believes that many residents in Ogimi echo her sentiments about life.
A 2010 CNN news report highlighted the lives of a few people in Ogimi just like Okan. When asked about their longevity, the villagers offered much of the same wisdom that Okan provides. The reporter found that the village as a whole valued a strong sense of community and optimism.
Okan and Oji’s first child was born in the mid-50’s. They both constantly worked planting crops to feed their young family. Oji even collected scrap metal in the early 50s to make money. He also became very good at catching Octopus and collecting oysters in the ocean.
“It was hard, but we had each other,” Okan said. “Children give you a reason to keep going; somehow you find a way.”
By the mid-1960s, Okan’s family had grown to include five children. Oji would fish and free-dive every day, bringing home what he caught. Okan would prepare the catch of the day and she began running a small business, delivering the extra fish Oji caught to the local markets. Okan and Oji also constantly worked in their small plot of land growing crops; the children went to school and helped their parents all the time.
“We worked very hard but we were happy and we also helped our neighbors with their crops,” she said.
Eventually, they were able to save enough money to buy some land in the mountains nearby, which they turned into a productive orange grove.
By the mid 1970’s Oji had become a very well-respected fisherman and he even developed his own technique for catching octopus. He continued to free-dive with a simple hand-held spear, mask and fins up until the day he died at age 84.
Okan’s eyes widen as she remembers the years. A few older children race by her, laughing loudly and chasing each other in circles. Okan waits until they pass by.
“The most important thing in this life is to work hard, live honestly and forgive often,” she said.
Her wisdom is profound, simple and hard-earned. Her struggles reveal themselves in the deep creases of her face and in her well-worn hands, but her eyes are filled with love and kindness. The little two-year-old boy is back at her side and tugs at her shirt. She gives him a hug and asks him if he’s hungry. He says, “Yes” and she hands him a small treat from a basket on the table next to her.
When asked if there’s a word for retirement in her village she smiles, “No, we don’t have a word for that!” she said. “I don’t even understand what that is; you work, you take care of your family and your neighbors and you do well; that is life,” she explained.
Census data from the local government shows that the population of the village is slowly dwindling. Even the local dialect called Uchinaguchi, was designated as an endangered language by UNESCO in 2009.
Okan’s hopes for the future are simple. “I want to see my grandchildren grow up and I don’t want to be a burden on my family as I get older,” she said. “If I get sick and have to go the hospital, I just hope I go to Heaven as quickly as possible.”