As we heard in a government white paper on the elderly last week, the number of people aged 90 or over topped 1 million in Japan for the first time in 2004. Japan has long held the record for its citizens having the longest life expectancy in the world. And the government is only too aware of the graying population, which combined with a record low birth rate — an average of only 1.29 children per woman — is certain to cause economic problems in the near future.

At the current rate, there will be only 64 million people in the country by the end of the century, and many of those will be elderly. But why do people live so long in Japan?

The standard answers point to a good diet, good health care and good support for the elderly — all of which certainly play an important part in keeping Japan at the top of the world’s longevity league. But I like to think (without any really solid evidence, it has to be said) that there is something else going on too.

I think it’s down to Japan’s culture of shikata ga nai (it cannot be helped). If something out of one’s control happens, Japanese people will often say “shikata ga nai” and get on with the situation, without rupturing blood vessels in frustration.

This might seem to contradict the karoshi (death by overwork) phenomenon in Japan’s world of work, but I think that the easygoing nature of the Japanese, exemplified by “shikata ga nai,” could partly explain the long lifespans in this country.

And here’s why: Buddhism. While most Japanese don’t chant and meditate like monks every day, the culture is steeped in Buddhism, even if it’s not obvious. It’s similar to how Britain, for example, is steeped in Christian values, despite only 2 percent of the population going to church. If latent Buddhism and “shikata ga nai” keep blood pressure down, then that’s a good thing for longevity.

There is some evidence to support this idea. Last month the American Journal of Cardiology reported that patients with elevated blood pressure who practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) had reduced death rates and an average longer lifespan than a control group of patients who did not practice the technique. Sure, TM is not the same as latent Buddhism, and repetitive chanting is hardly the same as saying “shikata ga nai” in the face of setbacks — but it’s in the same ballpark.

The study, carried out by Robert Schneider, director of the Center of Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, tracked 202 men and women, average age 71, who had mildly elevated blood pressure, for up to 18 years. The subjects practiced TM techniques such as mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation.

While far from conclusive (for one thing, the number of people involved is small), the study’s results are certainly intriguing. Compared to people not practicing TM, the TM group showed a 23 percent reduction in the rate of death from all causes. This included a 30 percent reduction in the rate of death from cardiovascular disease and a 49 percent reduction in the rate of death from cancer.

“The Transcendental Meditation program reduces risk factors in heart disease and other chronic disorders, such as high blood pressure, smoking, psychological stress, stress hormones, harmful cholesterol and atherosclerosis,” said Schneider. “These reductions slow the aging process and promote the long-term reductions in death rates.”

Previous work at Maharishi University suggested that TM may reduce atherosclerosis and the risk of heart attack and stroke. This was research published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke, in 2000, and conducted in association with the University of California in Los Angeles.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for all Americans, and it is particularly dangerous for African Americans, who are statistically twice as likely to die from the illness as their white compatriots. The study suggested that African Americans practicing TM had less fatty substances deposited on their arterial walls over the seven-month trial period than a group not practicing TM.

Earlier this year, too, work conducted at the Medical College of Georgia showed that TM helped black adolescents with high blood pressure improve the ability of their blood vessels to relax. After eight months of meditation, the subjects experienced a 21 percent increase in the capacity of their blood vessels to dilate — compared to a 4 percent decrease experienced by their non-meditating peers, said Vernon Barnes, a physiologist at the Medical College.

“Change can’t be expected overnight,” said Barnes. “Meditation and other positive lifestyle habits such as exercising and eating right have to become part of your life, like brushing your teeth.”

Which brings us back to Buddhism and a lifestyle habit of “shikata ga nai.” It could be argued that “shikata ga nai” is fatalistic, and not a positive approach to life. After all, sometimes it is a good idea to make a fuss if something doesn’t go your way.

But on the whole I think (without any really solid evidence, as I said before) that “shikata ga nai” probably has a positive effect on blood pressure and stress hormones, and so is a good thing. Certainly it’s a good thing for a healthy lifespan and a positive sense of wellbeing, if not for a government without any good ideas on solving the graying population crisis.

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