Japan may never have become the world's No. 1 economy, and, faced with other rising Asian powers, it probably never will be. Nonetheless, there is one thing at which Japan proudly excels above all nations: its people's longevity.

Japanese are the longest-lived people in the world, logging an average life span of 81.9 years, according to a 2004 World Health Organization report. And in the nation's rapidly graying society, it's not hard to find people who are living proof of that longevity: More than one in five of the 126 million population are 65 or older. Of those, amazingly, more than a million are 90 or older.

Not only that, but perhaps at least as significantly, Japan's "healthy life expectancy" -- a WHO measure of how long people retain the ability to meet their daily needs, such as eating, dressing and going to the toilet unassisted -- also topped the global league table at 75 years on average.