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Okinawa: Land of the Rising Lifespan

Sumiko Taira, 91, in Ogimi, Okinawa.
Daniel Sieberg
Tues., Dec. 15, 2009

OGIMI -- Today's message: anytime I feel old or tired or weary, I will think of the people of Ogimi. The residents of this Okinawan town are a shining symbol of healthy living and long life and made me feel very humbled, indeed.

A Longer Life in Okinawa

At 9 a.m., we picked up Craig Wilcox, a professor of gerontology and our guide for this trek, and drove north for about 90 minutes to this northern Okinawa village of about 3,500 people. Once there, we met some of the residents, who embrace a diet that is low in calories and high in nutrition and anti-oxidants.

At "Emi's Restaurant," we sampled a dish called the "Longevity Lunch," filled with fresh fruits and vegetables (grown locally as part of the endemic farming culture), tofu, and fish caught nearby. For sale on Emi's shelves-- a salad dressing with a dried vegetable fondly referred to as the "long life grass" (it looks a little like kale).

Collecting that "long life grass" in a deft fashion was Sumiko Taira, 91, who has lived nearly all her life in this lush village. She sells the "long life grass" to Emi and survives on a modest, government-funded income. We bonded with Sumiko from the moment we started talking with her; she has an infectious laugh and spry gait that betray her 1918 birthdate. The diminutive Okinawan says she's "never been sick" and credits healthy foods, laughter, and close family connections -- she has six children, 16 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. But she moves like a child herself. Her favorite activity seemed to be hopping on her bike and riding up and down the streets of Ogimi. I was more worried about our cameraman, Randy, who was trying to keep up!

And she's not alone. During our stay in Ogimi, I was introduced to gateball (very similar to croquet, but surprisingly more competitive and popular with aging Japanese) and the eight participants' age averaged nearly 80 years. Truly, I was in shock. These people moved without a walker or a wheelchair or even waiting for any assistance. Far from it. They joked around and chatted and seemed remarkably content. Granted, the locale is serene and largely stress-free, but these people have raised children and survived WWII and endured countless other personal setbacks. Yet, they persevere.

How do they do it? We'll have more on the people of Ogimi and their concerns about the next generation of Okinawans in coming days. Remember that all these stories will be featured in upcoming broadcasts of "The Early Show."

Mon., Dec. 14, 2009

After a nearly 24-hour trek hopping from New York through Seoul and one of the southern Japanese islands (Fukuoka), I've finally arrived in Okinawa.

It's clearly a remote place, but one that offers much curiosity to many people around the world. (The last time I was in Japan was 1990, but that was in Tokyo and Yokohama) Producer Bob Kozberg and I will be here for the next few days, looking into what enables the residents to enjoy such long lives.

On a personal level, we'd all like to add more (healthy) years. On a professional level, this story is a continuation of ones I did for CBS "Sunday Morning" in 2007 and another for "The Early Show" in 2008.

But back to our host: Okinawa's name means "offshore rope" or "rope in the sea," and it refers to the stretch of 161 islands (only 44 inhabited) that complete this Japanese archipelago. It's the only part of Japan to reside in a sub-tropical zone; the average annual temperature here is about 71 degrees.

And its marked separation from other Japanese islands is reflected in more than just its balmier climate -- the culture and language of Okinawa are distinct and, in some cases, even endangered.

The Ryukyu language is the major dialect of Japanese, but with easily accessible communications (TV, radio, Internet), the Okinawan history is increasingly blending into the rest of Japan.

And of course, Okinawa has had an uneasy (to put it mildly) relationship with the U.S. since WWII, with the latter occupying these islands until 1972.

Today, those disagreements have hardly disappeared. In fact, there are simmering disputes between the Japanese and U.S. governments over the transfer of U.S. troops out of the country. At issue is whether the recently-elected Japanese government will adhere to a bilateral accord signed in 2006 that says the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma would be relocated further north, where the U.S. would build a new helicopter facility. Many Okinawans have long complained about the U.S. presence here, and to ease the transition, about 8,000 Marines would be transferred to the U.S. territory of Guam by 2014 or 2015.

But for some Japanese -- including high-level government officials -- that's not soon enough, and the strain of the U.S. troops on local towns and residents, coupled with concerns over the environmental impact, are inciting a push to possibly have the U.S. leave Okinawa altogether.

In spite of those long-standing tensions, Okinawa has calmly maintained itself as the place with the most number of centenarians (people who live to be 100 years old), and its residents are among the people who live the longest anywhere in the world, with an average life expectancy of 81 years.

A recent and in-depth study of Okinawan residents finds that the number of centenarians here has been doubling every five years, from 30 in 1975 to a current figure of more than 900. While we're here, we'll dig into the science (and beliefs) behind what makes Okinawa so unique and talk to researchers like Dr. Craig Wilcox about a new gene that may unlock a connection to long life.

So, what's Okinawan secret? It's both complicated and straightforward, and I'll reveal more in the coming days, including some photos of the people we encounter. Plus, we'll look at the next generation of Okinawans, who might be swayed by the temptations of fast food or unhealthy lifestyles and eschewing the wise choices of tradition.

Watch for upcoming stories on "The Early Show" that will include everything we discovered here.