Karoshi means “death from overwork” in Japanese. It’s a real thing. It’s characterized by sudden death with no previous signs of illness occurring, very often, in young adults. People are literally working themselves to death, so much so, that it is a big issue in Japan. The Karoshi Hotline and multiple self-help books already exist in an attempt to alleviate the problem. Some victims were found to have worked long hours without a single day off in weeks. The Washington Post reported 60+ hours of work per week was not uncommon. One man was mentioned putting in 114 hours of overtime each month. The drive to work hard and be successful is literally killing people.
On the other side of the spectrum exist some of the happiest people in the world who’s lifespan is the longest per capita. The people of this magical land rarely have conditions of coronary heart disease, various cancers, and issues with cholesterol. Their daily lives are rich with farming, community gatherings, and a sense of camaraderie with everyone they meet. Ironically, this magical place also happens to be in Japan– on the island of Okinawa.
Okinawa has so many people living over the age of 100 that The Okinawa Centenarian Study was developed in 1975 to investigate the reasons behind this. Unfortunately, there is no evidence, so far, of a secret fountain of youth hiding on the island. What seems to exist, however, is community. A lot of it. These 100+ year olds are not sitting around loathing in their old age and expecting to be taken care of. They play as active a role in caring for others as they are cared for. They continue to participate in social gatherings with people of all ages. In the documentary “Happy”, one elderly Okinawan woman stated “If some tragedy happens to a family, everybody in the village comes out.” They describe a common word in the culture “ichariba-chode,” which means “when you meet somebody you are already brother and sister, even if it’s the first time.” Try walking into a bar in NYC and telling that to a New Yorker. Then, make sure you duck.
In addition to a strong community, diet— the usual suspect, is highly correlated to their longevity. Pesticide-free farming is common amongst most Okinawans. Farming provides nutrition to their own family as well as their neighbors. Giving out their produce as gifts is a typical practice. Their cultural eating habits is known as “hara hachi bu” (eating until you are 80% full). In America, this is known as appetizers. Most of the food Okinawans eat is naturally low-calorie and low-glycemic. As a result, they consistently spend their entire lives being healthy and slim.
From karoshi to centenarians, the country of Japan has a population living in very extreme ways. Where along this large spectrum would you find yourself fitting if you were living there? The push for success drives the “American Dream” but maybe the “American Dream” defined success too narrowly to begin with. What if being successful meant going shopping for your neighbor that you noticed needed a new coat instead buying yourself a third one in a different color. Or, instead of owning x-amount of cars you give x-amount of kids a rich education by supporting local schools that need help. If one individual changes their idea of success and acts accordingly, it doesn’t mean that the whole world is going to change. But, if no one makes a change, the world is guaranteed to stay exactly the same.