A recent study in the Lancet outlines the reason why Japan’s population has the longest life expectancy in the world, a staggering increase of 30 years from the expected lifespan in 1947. The study highlights three major contributing factors, and a model that could be followed by other nations wishing for their countrymen to hang around a bit longer.
So is it yearly cruises, computer games and karaoke that keep us so healthy? No. It’s because we work at it.
Work Hard, Play Hard
The Japanese take their health seriously, both individually and in government. Government-provided health screening is available for all and, crucially, is available within both school and workplace settings. This means the chances of picking up potentially serious diseases is maximized and the chance of individuals slipping through the net is minimized. It also instills a culture of health screening, which is enthusiastically embraced by the individual. It is not uncommon for business people to take a few days off for a full health screening check. A short stay in hospital for a thorough health check up can be seen as an investment.
The improvement in Japanese healthcare began back in the 1950s, when policymakers began investing in public health by introducing a number of radical measures. With the introduction of free screening and treatment for tuberculosis and universal vaccinations for children, disease rates began to drop. Not afraid to intervene in the lives of their citizens, the government looked next at reducing salt intake, and campaigned accordingly. Investment in drugs for tackling "the silent killer" of high blood pressure saw death rates drop. The introduction of universal health insurance in 1961 was another great step forward.
You Are What You Eat
Another factor in the improved longevity of the Japanese is their diet, which plays a huge role in the health of the nation. Low in fat, and nutritionally balanced, there could not be a much more healthy model for the world to follow. And the improvement in living standards over the last few years has seen a correlating improvement in the quality of food available to consumers.
Cleanliness and Health
A culture of cleanliness is cited as the third major factor in public health. Japanese fastidiousness is renowned and has its roots in Shinto. The tradition of purifying the body and mind before meeting others means that there is less chance of passing on germs and infection. The climate also ensures that there is a necessary attention to personal hygiene.
There May Be Trouble Ahead
So is this utopian vision set to continue? Are the Japanese so far ahead in their healthcare provision that they will lead the world for decades into the future? It is unlikely, unless they tackle a number of problems. Firstly, with improved longevity comes the risk of an aging population outweighing working and productive members of society who have to pay for the healthcare. Currently, the statistics show that 23% of the population is over 65, but estimates suggest that that could soar to 40% by 2050, without a balancing increase in the birthrate. In fact, Japan’s population is decreasing and this is a trend that seems set to continue.
The impact of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, the subsequent tsunami and the nuclear leak at Fukushima has shaken the Japanese social order, welfare and healthcare system to the core. There is a distrust of authority that did not exist before, as people acknowledge the flawed advice their government issued at various times during the crisis. An increase in stress and workload is the last thing the country needed, since one of the few areas of health concern surrounded alcoholism and suicide, as the hardworking population succumbed to work induced stress.
Figures for unemployment are rising in the wake of the disasters too, which is known to be another cause of these particular mental health problems. The population is one that still smokes heavily, and that trend shows no sign of going into reverse either. Finally, it is the economic situation in Japan that is the biggest threat the country faces. Universal healthcare provision for all comes at a high price.
The Good News
A baby girl born in Japan today can expect to live to 86 and a boy to nearly 80. For today’s new parents, this can only bring comfort. Japan knows what it needs to do to ensure this figure stays the same. It just needs to keep doing it.© Japan Today