To your health — Japanese style


“Just what is good health,” a wise man once told me, “other than the slowest way to die?”

Viewed from that rather “unhealthy” perspective, longevity may not be the living end many people think it is.

Japan as a nation is squinting this idea in the eye these days as its population grays faster than a politician’s grasp of right and wrong. As everyone wrings their hands and wonders how Japan will ever pay and care for its increasing ranks of geezers, they also fret over whether they will survive long enough to join those ranks themselves.

Yet, despite killer workaholism and a suicide rate double that of the United States, most Japanese do manage to reach the upper stratosphere of life. How do they do it? Here’s a quick primer on becoming long in the tooth, Japanese-style.

Any explanation of Japanese longevity must begin with the caveat that the mortality statistics here are skewed by the lack of guns. Trade U.S. numbers of death by firearms (just under 29,000 in 2000) with Japanese (39 in 1999) and we can easily see how Japan has ended up with so many grannies and grandpops. If only Japan could — like the U.S. does — shoot 75 young adults or children a day (Yeah but only about 20 percent of these are fatal) and keep this up for year upon year, again as the U.S. has, the eventual result would be a much trimmer population.

The oft-cited prime culprit for Japan’s graybeard boom is the nation’s nutritious cuisine. How a diet of seaweed, bean curd, green tea and raw fish could make anyone want to live at all is a respectable question. Nevertheless, the effects are impressive.

Sure, the shovels of salt in soy sauce have been known to stoke blood pressure levels to record highs, but the overall goodie-two-shoes impact of the rest of the food has offset this and other evil abuses such as smoking cigarettes by the “furoshiki” load and pickling the national innards with booze.

Recent reports even say that “miso” soup helps reduce the risk of breast cancer. Yet there may be no truth to the rumors that if you swirl the soup just right, the Virgin Mary appears deep in the miso.

On the other hand, Japanese youth stuff down Big Macs, Oreo cookies and Snickers bars at a rate that shows they at least hope to curb their own old age. Still, junk food from abroad has yet to erode the nutritional vigor of the populous.

Lack of exercise ranks — along with the putrid economy — as one of the chief complaints of the workingman. But Japanese life has exercise built in, sort of the way all dogs have fleas. For while the typical Japanese working stiff may spend the entire day planted before a computer monitor, to get to this well-worn seat he or she must first ride a bike 10 minutes to catch a train or bus and then rodeo through an hourlong ride with a zillion other pushy passengers.

This is why everyone is already ready for bed by the time they arrive at work. And it may also be why the economy keeps snoozing. Yet the health effects of this daily exercise cannot be ignored.

Of course there is also the wild spate of “stamina” drinks, sold in thumb-size bottles with fist-size prices. These may or may not contain actual benefits, but there is no doubt that the TV commercials that persistently peddle these snake oils are so ridiculous that they keep people giggling. Laughter is, as you know, potent medicine (Fighto! Ippatsu!).

The Japanese are also keen on importing health fixes from abroad. Royal jelly, ginseng root, granola bars and even Agaricus — the anti-skin cancer mushroom that Ronald Reagan took either before or after he lost his mind — all have their following. Maca, Peru’s natural equivalent of Viagra, is also a hit, proving once again that sex sells.

The latest of these crazes may be noni juice, as witness the enormous noni cafe now standing in west Shinjuku. What’s noni, you say?

Well, noni is a tropical fruit traditionally taken as a cure-all by the peoples of Polynesia. And — think about this now — have you ever seen a sick Polynesian?

These days noni is booming so fast that Hawaiian farmers are turning cartwheels to cultivate trees that 10 years ago they thought of as weeds. These same farmers salivate when they think of the potential health market in Japan.

The kicker, however, is noni’s taste. Some call it unique. Others just gag. The price, too, has largely been “adjusted” for Japan — meaning it’s higher than the moon. Will Japanese pay so much for something that tastes so bad?

“It has been scientifically proven that if you take noni daily, you cannot get prostate cancer,” says Patrick Walsh, a marketer of pocketbook-friendly noni from Hawaii. “That is,” he continues, “if you’re a mouse.” Results on humans are inconclusive.

He elbows me to try it for whatever ails me. Nothing ails me, I counter. “Oh no?” he asks, as he flecks dandruff from my shoulder. “Give it eight days and see.”

So I try noni, and the flaky skin that I have always blamed on Japanese climate does NOT go away in eight days. No, it disappears in six.

“Maybe I should become a health nut,” I tell my wife as I learn to love my noni juice.

“Sounds good to me,” she says. “You’ve got the nut part down.”

But who wants to live forever? I already have seaweed and pro wrestling commuter rides. Do I need noni too?

Well . . . why not? Here’s to your health. Fighto! Ippatsu!