Naha, Okinawa Pref., May 18 (Jiji Press)–Okinawa Prefecture is seeing average life expectancy fall among its residents, especially men, with experts putting the blame on a dietary change under the post-World War II U.S. occupation.
After its reversion to Japan from the U.S. rule 50 years ago, on May 15, 1972, Okinawa had stayed high in the prefecture-by-prefecture rankings of average life expectancy, tallied by the health ministry every five years based on national census and other data.
Okinawa had the longest average life expectancy among Japan’s 47 prefectures in 1980 both for men and women. But Okinawan men, who retained the top position in 1985, slid to fifth in 1990. After rising back to fourth in 1995, they abruptly fell to 26th in 2000 and have been staying low since then. Men in Okinawa ranked 36th in 2015.
Okinawan women came third in 2010 after maintaining the top spot until 2005, and fell to seventh in 2015.
The health and longevity division of the Okinawa prefectural government attributes the results to obesity and lifestyle-related diseases among Okinawans due to a shift from traditional vegetable-based local cuisine.
People in the southernmost Japan prefecture now tend to eat less vegetables and more meat, which has sent Okinawa’s obesity rate above the national average for all age groups, both for men and women.
Soon after the end of the war, meals in Okinawa, such as stewed potatoes, were rich in fiber, said Hiroaki Masuzaki, professor at the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.
During the U.S. occupation, however, Okinawa had its first fast-food restaurant in 1963, and saw a rapid inflow of U.S.-style aliment culture thereafter. As people got familiar with high-calorie food, obesity and arterial stiffening increased.
“Okinawa plunged in the rankings quickly as the effect of such a dietary habit came to the surface,” Masuzaki said.
The Okinawa government started in 2002 to create health promotion programs, with the aim of bringing the island prefecture back to the top of the life expectancy rankings by 2040.
Based on the programs, a variety of measures to keep locals health-conscious have been hammered out, including experience-based events to help improve dietary habits.
In the city of Ginowan in the prefecture, a project is underway to build a high-standard international medical hub. “From our city, we want to spread model projects for healthy longevity across Okinawa,” an official at the Ginowan municipal government’s health promotion division said.