I first learned about Okinawa from the author of the bestselling book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Dan Buettner made my anthropological brain geek out. I’ve always had a fascination about cultures. That fascination was what lead me to get a degree in Cultural Anthropology.
Okinawa is just one out of the worlds’ five “Blue Zones.” Blue Zones are specific regions of the world with the most centenarians (people 100 years or older) per capita. This is determined by a number of factors that Buettner studied. Some of the markers he was researching were community, physical activity, diet, and peoples’ sense of purpose. The inhabitants of this archipelago off the southern coast of Japan are called Okinawans. They are primarily plant-based and are known as being “friendly” and “peaceful.”
When I found out my boyfriend was Okinawan, I immediately wanted to ask questions and do ethnographic research on his family. Upon meeting them for the first time, I fell into a culture shock. His parents were born and raised in South America, but their parents, and therefore genetics, come from Okinawa. Culturally speaking, they are both South American and Okinawan, making for a fascinating ethnography. My partner is first-generation American with full Okinawan blood, and he and his family speak English, Spanish, Japanese, and some Uchināguchi, which is the common language of Okinawa.
So it’s safe to say that after meeting my boyfriend and his family, I immediately fell in love—with their Okinawan culture that is.
For the past 3 years, I got a first-hand experience in acclimating to Okinawan culture. I participated in meals, listened to stories, and learned how to play gateball, a croquet-type game invented in Japan. It was refreshing living in a way that was different from how I was raised to view the world. Unfortunately, I still have yet to visit Okinawa, but I’m hoping to as soon as travel restrictions in Asia ease up. Until then though, I will continue to admire, learn, and respect the cultural diversity I am surrounded by.
7 things We Can Learn From the Okinawans:
It is important to have a strong sense of community.
Okinawans hold their family, friends, and neighbors close to their heart. It’s so strong that it truly connects the entire fabric of all who inhabit the islands. This is found in their term “icharibachadoo” which translates to “once you meet, you are brothers and able to share.”
You don’t need chairs to be comfy or healthy.
I never knew what floor culture was until meeting my boyfriend. And now we have an apartment with very little furniture and tons of open floor space. Okinawans traditionally sleep on tatami mats and eat sitting on the floor. Because of this, their elders have a better sense of balance and maintain strength.
The islanders live by their own version of “island time” called “Uchinaa time.” People never rush and forgive others for not being on time, very different from Japan!
Food is medicine.
Okinawans are fond of gardening, and they enjoy fresh produce year round. Many of their staple foods are nutrient-dense and vegan, like kabocha, tofu, purple sweet potatoes, goya (bitter melon), green tea, and rice. The meals I’ve had with my boyfriend were always fresh, simple, and super filling.
Having purpose is crucial.
Most Okinawans don’t use the word “retire,” because work to them is something that gives them meaning. Every morning they wake up knowing their role and honoring it, regardless of their age and level of ability.
Exercise can be fun.
Gardening, dancing, walking, and playing gateball are all activities Okinawans take part it. Being in a shared space with others and allowing fun and ease to flow gives Okinawans a relaxed approach to their exercising.
Traveling is one way to experience the richness of cultures, but sometimes it can be closer than you even realize. Learning from other cultures is a way for me to stay humble, curious, and perpetually in awe by the diversity of our beautiful world. I’m honored to be a part of a family with such a rich culture. They have welcomed me in with open hands and warm hearts. I look forward to the day that I’ll be able to pass on some of these values to my own children.
Get more like this—Sign up for our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!
Photo: abigailgrimes via Flickr