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The Japanese Table

Okinawa: Land of Longevity

by Naomichi Ishige

Although a relatively small country, the Japanese archipelago offers up an amazing variety of regional cuisines: its mountains, coasts, plains and valleys all boast specialty foods that reflect each area's history, traditions and way of life. Our new four-part series takes a look at Japan's diverse regional food cultures, beginning in the south with Okinawa.

Sweet Tastes

Located at the southwestern tip of the Japanese archipelago, Okinawa Prefecture comprises nearly one hundred small subtropical islands. Of these, 44 are populated, while the rest are mainly uninhabited coral reefs. Since the first half of the seventeenth century, when sugar refining methods were introduced from China, the prefecture's principal product has been brown sugar produced from sugar cane.

The Okinawan islands are not suited to wet rice farming, as there are no large rivers or lakes; any agriculture must rely on the region's limited rainfall, a situation which in the past often led to famine. One crop has thrived in the region, however: the sweet potato was first brought to Okinawa in 1605 from Fujian (Fukien) province in China. The tuber had been introduced to China from its native Central America via the Philippines, and soon became the most important crop for the Okinawan people. Eaten boiled, it was a staple of the popular diet until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Ryukyu Menu

The ancient name for Okinawa is Ryukyu: linguistically, the Ryukyu language is considered a dialect of Japanese, and the Okinawan people belong to the same cultural lineage as those living on the Japanese mainland. Given its remote location, however, Okinawa has been politically separate from the rest of Japan for much of its history.

In 1429, the islands were unified under a line of Ryukyu kings, and during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at the height of the kingdom's power, Ryukyu ships traversed the East China Sea. Trade with Korea and Southeast Asia flourished, and Ryukyu established settlements in many Southeast Asian ports. The influence of Chinese and Southeast Asian foods and culinary methods adopted during that period are still evident in Okinawa today.

Vegetables common in Okinawa, such as goya (known as bitter gourd) and nabera (loofah or towel gourd), were at one time not eaten on the Japanese main islands, except in southern Kyushu. Both of these were likely introduced to Okinawa from Southeast Asia by Ryukyu merchant fleets. Today eaten throughout Japan, goya is most commonly stir-fried with tofu to make a dish called goya chanpuru. The word chanpuru, an Okinawan dish made of tofu and various vegetables stir-fried together, is said to come from tjampur, a Malay and Indonesian term for "jumbled up." The method for distilling awamori, the traditional liquor of Okinawa, probably found its way into the region from Siam (Thailand) during the fifteenth century.

Because the Ryukyu kingdom was among the tributary states of China, it was customary for the Chinese emperor to send a mission in order to sanction each new king who succeeded to the Ryukyu throne. To properly entertain the members of these missions, who numbered upwards of a few hundred, the Ryukyu court sent cooks to Fujian province across the sea to study Chinese cuisine. Chinese culinary methods thus spread from the court to the common people in Okinawa.

In 1609, the lord of the Kagoshima domain (in the southernmost part of Kyushu) invaded Ryukyu, and from that time Ryukyu became a semi-independent country with ties to both China and Japan. The Ryukyu court sent cooks to the Japanese main islands to study Japanese cuisine—the better to serve the Kagoshima-appointed officials serving in the islands. The resulting fusion of Southeast Asian, Chinese and Japanese foods and culinary methods formed the foundations of present-day Okinawan cooking.

Life-Giving Nutrition

The people of Okinawa traditionally practiced a shamanistic form of religion and remained largely outside the influence of Buddhism, which was prevalent elsewhere throughout Japan. Whereas those on the main islands avoided meat until about the middle of the nineteenth century, pork and goat were long a customary part of the Okinawan diet, unencumbered by Buddhist injunctions against meat. It is said that Okinawan cooking "begins with pig and ends with pig." Everything from the flesh to the ears, innards, skin, blood and feet are consumed—underscoring the saying that "every part of a pig can be eaten except its hooves and its oink."

Japan currently boasts the longest average lifespan in the world, and until recently, the longest-living individuals were residents of Okinawa. One key to Okinawan longevity lies in the consumption of pork, which permits the absorption of balanced amounts of animal protein and fat. The sweet potato, the staple food, is rich in dietary fiber and vitamins, while the many types of seaweed harvested from the sea around Okinawa provide a plentiful supply of minerals.

One point of particular interest, as far as the history of food culture is concerned, is that the people of southern Okinawa are in fact the largest consumers of konbu (kelp), which is a product from Japan's northern seas. This is because, during the Edo period (1603-1867), stocks of konbu were gathered in Okinawa before being shipped to China.

Today, however, change threatens the well-balanced diet that has been responsible for maintaining the famous Okinawan longevity. Although women in Okinawa still claim the longest average lifespan in Japan, the figures for men are falling, owing to an increase in lifestyle-related illnesses brought on by the great influx into Japan of Western foods that are high in fats and cholesterol.

Author's Profile

Naomichi Ishige, born in 1937 in Chiba Prefecture, is an anthropologist and authority on the history of food. Formerly associate professor and professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, he served as its director-general from 1997-2003 and is now professor emeritus. Among his many works are Shokuji no bunmeiron ("Of Meals and Civilization"), and Bunka-menruigaku kotohajime ("First Steps in the Study of Noodle Culture").