Can Japanese wellness trends teach us anything?
Sometimes, it’s healthy to engage in self-reflection and look beyond one’s own borders for inspiration. Across the world, other cultures have long embraced wellness, practicing it in ways that often seem foreign to us. And yet, many of these ways work.
Take Japan as an example. The country boasts the highest life expectancy in the world, with a recent study finding that the typical Japanese citizen lives to age 73 without experiencing any major illnesses. The total life expectancy on the island is 80+ years. Add that to the lowest obesity rate in the world, and you have a case for taking wellness lessons from the Japanese.
In truth, Japanese wellness isn’t based on any single factor. So, it’s worth examining the pertinent factors to learn important lessons from it. Below, we reveal the 9 things Americans can learn from the Japanese when it comes to health and wellness.
1) A Low-Calorie Diet Is Key to Greater Longevity
Let’s start with the obvious: Japan is famous for its low-calorie diet. A typical meal generally consists of a small bowl of rice alongside a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes. Those side dishes typically consist of either fish, meat, tofu, and/or vegetables. Heard of the 1975 Japanese diet? Replete with legumes, fruit, seafood, and seaweed, it exponentially reduces your risk of premature aging and chronic disorders.
The prevalence of fish and vegetables plays a big role in the number of calories the Japanese consume. In fact, per capita seafood consumption in Japan is more than twice that in America, putting the country among the top seafood-consuming cultures in the world.
Beyond that, a culture of restraint has also long been a part of Japanese life. Rather than either overindulging or severely restricting certain foods, children are encouraged to enjoy treats and snacks in moderation. Thus, eating healthy foods, along with some snacks, is the norm.
It’s easy to reap dividends from this type of diet. Health-conscious Americans have long focused on smaller servings and fewer dishes. But, Japanese wellness also focuses on what you eat. Increasing seafood, fish, and vegetable consumption can go a long way towards promoting a healthier, more balanced life.
2) Japanese Wellness Prioritizes Attentive Eating
It’s about more than what’s on the plate. The Japanese relate eating to a ritual of sorts. Meals become communal experiences, and the practice of sharing all food on the table is cherished. In restaurants, the group orders together, and each enjoys only small portions of every dish. Even individual-sized meal portions are smaller than those in the United States.
You’ll almost never catch the Japanese eating on-the-go or while engaging in another activity. When it’s mealtime, everyone focuses on the meal. This prevents distracted or “mindless eating,” which can lead to unwanted weight gain. When we eat in front of the TV or while glued to our iPhones, we miss the cues that tell us that we’ve satiated our hunger. So, incorporating attentive-eating principles into daily living can promote weight loss and maintenance.
Finally, Japanese people practice Hara Hachi Bu, which (roughly translated), means “Eat until you’re 80% full.” The final 20%, according to the Japanese, will only make you feel bloated and less likely to enjoy the rest of your day. It’s a deceptively easy phrase that, when embraced, can lead to lower caloric intake and better health.
3) A Deep Preference for Tea
Let’s move from foods to beverages. Yes, you may be a tea drinker. But, chances are, you take yours with sugar and/or cream.
The Japanese, to begin with, drink tea without sugar, milk, or other additives. And, they can get away with it. The teas they drink are flavorful enough to be perfectly enjoyable on their own. The Japanese prize green teas, from the delicate, mellow gyokuro to the robust hojicha
But, tea is about more than just flavor. The health benefits of tea are entrenched in Japanese culture:
- Oolong tea helps to boost metabolism and regulate blood sugar.
- Jasmine tea is full of antioxidants.
- Barley tea can aid in the digestive process.
But, above all, the Japanese believe that green tea sharpens the mind and facilitates the burning of fat. And, studies have shown that green tea may help reduce the risks of heart disease. It’s not just myth, either. According to one study, green tea consumption is linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Looking for an easy change in your life? It may be as simple as drinking a few cups of green tea a day.
4) Japanese Wellness Incorporates Cleanliness and Hygienic Practices
Before COVID-19 hit, Westerners took a laissez-faire attitude to cleanliness. Now, the Japanese focus on avoiding germs seems much more prescient. Japanese culture is focused on cleanliness, in more ways than one.
Partially because it’s a more collectivist society, the Japanese have long worn masks in public to protect others from potential illnesses. Every restaurant offers oshibori, wet towels or cleaning cloths, for sanitizing hands before the food arrives. In addition, you’ll find public bathhouses in every city and town.
And, the signs of cleanliness are everywhere. Japanese schoolchildren are taught to clean throughout all 12 years of schooling. Daily, they engage in o-sogi (cleaning). And, some schools even blast dance-worthy music over the PA system while students clean their classrooms. Meanwhile, customers and cashiers in stores avoid touching hands.
These measures have begun to seem more commonplace to the American public during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve always been a part of Japanese culture. In fact, Japan is one of the cleanest countries in the world, holding firm at #12, with an Environmental Performance Index (EPI) score of 75.1. Presently, the United States stands at #24, with an EPI score of 69.3.
5) Mindful Activity as the Key To Better Health
Generally, the Japanese don’t rush. But, at the same time, they’re one of the most active people in the world, thanks to a rich tradition of calisthenics.
In Japan, commuting by foot or via bike is the norm, even with one of the world’s best public transit systems in place. In fact, one study by the World Health Organization found that an astonishing 98% of Japanese children walk or bike to school. As a result, they naturally get an hour or more of exercise every day, setting up a lifelong habit of exercising.
This habit is then strengthened during adulthood. Both Japan’s public radio and TV stations broadcast an exercise session comparable to yoga every morning at 6:30 a.m., a tradition that began in the 1950s. In addition, many companies offer their own exercise sessions in the morning or during lunch for all of their workers.
The key, in other words, is making exercise a regular part of the daily routine. Mindful activities like walking can restore our focus and promote both physical and mental wellbeing.
6) Meditation and Nature as Keys to Joy
For the Japanese, it’s not just about the movement. It’s also about slowing down during key moments of the day.
That includes, of course, the practice of meditation. Japanese culture has embraced Zen Buddhism, the concept of finding enlightenment through meditation. This concept has led to visitors from around the world traveling to Japan to join sesshin group meditation sessions in temples.
At the same time, it’s about more than active meditation. Finding joy in the simple things of life has also permeated other parts of Japanese culture. This includes, famously, the concept of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku.
Forest bathing is about more than just taking a walk in the woods. It’s the practice of walking slowly through the forest, involving all of your senses in taking in your surroundings. It’s about practicing mindfulness on your walk, embracing the trip for itself, rather than as a means of getting to a specific destination. The practice of shinrin-yoku means simply noticing what you’re seeing, hearing, and feeling — and absorbing all of it without assigning any particular judgment on it.
Forest bathing even includes expressions that can’t be easily translated into other languages. For example, komorebi are the rays of the sun filtered through leaves, while kawaakari is the reflection of light on a river. Those are the types of things to focus on as you practice your own Shinrin-yoku.
7) Embracing the Imperfect
Another popular Japanese concept is wabi-sabi, which refers to the art of embracing imperfections. As the concept emphasizes, nothing in life is perfect. So, rather than lamenting the fact, we should embrace the various imperfections in life.
It’s difficult to translate the exact term into English, but here’s an attempt by Sayaka Fujii, the director of the Japan National Tourism Organization, as told to NBC News:
“The term… embodies two separate philosophies: Wabi “meaning loneliness (internally)” and sabi, meaning “withered, rustic (externally),” she says. “I think wabi is the heart/sense to feel the beauty of sabi, and when they are integrated, wabi-sabi is to feel the beauty in imperfection. Everything is transformable, impermanent, getting old and never lasts forever.”
Don’t let this particular definition overwhelm you, however. Instead, think of wabi-sabi as a means of training the mind to stop looking for aesthetic flaws in everything. Instead, accept your crooked nose or other perceived flaws. The concept of wabi-sabi teaches that the world is full of beauty. However, we can only see and revel in that beauty when we succeed in embracing its imperfections. For example, did you know that each of us possesses 24 character strengths in varying degrees? Embracing our strengths and weaknesses in all their glory can help us thrive in the game of life.
8) Patience as a Virtue
“Patience is a virtue” is a common saying in America. In fact, it’s so common that it’s become a cliché. But, how often do we actually embrace patience? In Japanese culture, it’s an intrinsic part of everyday life. In fact, it’s connected to the concept of shankankan, which roughly translates to “beauty in taking your time.”
The concept originates from Zen philosophy, which tells the story of the young student’s need to learn patience from his master in order to achieve true enlightenment. It’s a story that all of us can relate to.
The Japanese people embrace the journey of getting to the goal. This concept of patience can be seen in the Japanese practice of mindful meditation and Shinrin-yoku. It’s also visible in the Japanese belief that quick results don’t tend to last, but slow results are worth waiting for.
As a result, those embracing Japanese culture are more likely to be patient, finding root causes to problems rather than simply seeking to treat the symptoms. That’s a basic wellness truth that can apply almost anywhere, from skincare to healthy living.
9) Forming Habits That Promote Wellness
Finally, Japanese culture embraces a concept called Kaizen, which refers to the practice of “forming a habit.” It’s something everyone can embrace and that can apply to every aspect of daily life.
Put simply, the concept of Kaizen is about making continuous, small, incremental adjustments until a habit is formed. Instead of focusing on large and often unattainable goals, it’s about making those small changes that eventually turn into subconscious habits we don’t even have to think about.
So, increasing fitness levels isn’t about adding complex workouts to your daily regime. It’s about starting with a short, daily walk and going from there. In terms of meals, this may mean replacing one of your daily snacks or sugary drinks with a healthier alternative.
The changes are so small that it’s difficult to believe they’ll make a difference in the long run. But, the Japanese see it differently: once you’ve gotten over the initial challenges, further changes will be easier to implement. Through repetition, these small changes can eventually lead to continuous successes, increasing both your confidence and wellbeing.
Finding Ways to Embrace Japanese Wellness in the Fast-Paced American Culture
All of the above are great wellness tips, but they may be difficult to implement in our Western culture. So, here’s one final tip: the term “wellness” is actually very uncommon in Japan. It’s not a separate concept one has to practice. Instead, it’s so ingrained in the daily lives of millions that it becomes a natural part of life.
Getting to that point, of course, is a complex process. And yet, it comes with countless benefits. Embracing Japanese wellness, after all, is about more than just making a conscious choice. It’s about continuing to strive towards an optimum lifestyle that promotes health and wellbeing.
What exactly that process entails depends on every individual. Our embrace of Wellness Through Oneness™ carries many of the same concepts mentioned above and is worth further exploration. Would you like to walk the less-traveled road to wellness? If so, contact us to learn more about our embrace of natural wellness and how it may apply to your own needs.