Deep in the heart of Japan’s countryside lived the oldest person in the world. His name was Jiroemon Kimura and last Wednesday, he died at 116.
I had a chance to meet Kimura on the brink of his 115th birthday in a tucked away seaside village of southern Japan, a half-day journey by train from Kyoto City.
This pristine region called Kyotango, bordered by jade coastlines foaming onto pine-blanketed hills, was home to a startling number of human beings who had stood the test of time. In Kyotango alone, there were 54 centenarians, three times the national average in a country already renowned for longevity. These old, resilient souls were scurrying down narrow cobbled streets, napping under the heavy weight of futon blankets, even karaoking at the corner bar.
Since that day, I still hear my conversation with Kimura jostling around in my head, surprised to find myself carrying around its wisdom like a handy pocketbook on life.
In memory of a man who spread happiness from his remote corner in the world, I recount ten things Jiroemon Kimura taught me about living long and living well.
1. Exercise Every Single Day
Kimura claimed his secret to longevity was exercising everyday. “It’s important to make daily exercise a discipline, “ he said. “Ahabit.”
Kimura kept this habit well into his 100s. When his legs grew too weak after 110, he did a hundred bicycle motions each day while lying on his back. At 114, he still took time each day to wiggle his hands and legs repetitively, always making sure his muscles stayed active.
2. Eat Small Portions
The Japanese have a saying : hara hachibunme. (eat until you’re 80% full). Kimura lived by this philosophy, preaching his self-made slogan of “eat less and live long.” Pacing himself with small portions paid off. At nearly 115, he still enjoyed a good appetite and ate whatever he wanted. He took no medication at all.
3. Let Adversity Make You Strong
When something unexpected happened and things didn't go the way he wished them to, Kimura said he reminded himself that the experience, "is good for you, it helps you grow."
No matter how hard things got, he said he faced difficulties with “endurance and perseverance.” He told people to never let worry or suffering consume them because "after every storm, peace always comes."
Kimura had a philosophical context that allowed him to accept adversity without feeling as though his world is being threatened, according to John Daishin Buksbazen, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a Psy D. from Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute. When people see adversity as a challenge that they can work with and eventually overcome, they have better outcomes. With repeated practice, the neural pathways associated with this calm kind of coping can be reinforced and become more intuitive, tending to arise when adversity is encountered again.
4. Read the News Everyday
Kimura’s favorite part of the day was after breakfast, when he read the newspaper with a magnifying glass for two or three hours. He also enjoyed following congressional debates on television. In a 2009 interview with Yomiuri Online Kimura said he believed it is important for a person keep up with the times.
Reading the news and comprehending complex issues not only exercises the brain, according to Buksbazen, but also creates a sense of belonging to the larger world and connectedness to the human race, keeping loneliness and boredom at bay.
5. Eliminate Strong Preferences
It was impossible to get Kimura to name a favorite anything.
Favorite food? “Everything.” he smiled.
Favorite memory? “Many things, whatever came my way.”
What do you love about Kyotango? “Nothing in particular!”
What are you most thankful for? “I would say everything.”
Kimura lived in a world free of likes and dislikes. Yet rather than being an empty person devoid of interests, Kimura exuded a rare fullness, brimming with the humanity and passion that comes from being open to all things.
In Zen philosophy, which underlies Japanese culture, the Faith-Mind Sutra teaches that “the Great Way is not difficult; it only avoids picking and choosing. But make even the slightest distinction, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.”
By not choosing favorites, Kimura seemed to have mastered the art of ‘taking his life as it comes.'
6. Live Without Attachment
Kimura lived to see the span of three centennials and four emperors. He outlived his wife, two children and a grandson. So what keeps him motivated to live?
Everything,” he said. “But it’s impossible to pinpoint. If you try to do that, you will lose hope and the world can be a dark place”.
We often search for certain things in life to live for – our child, our partner, our craft, our mission. But having seen the ebb and flow of life, the mutability of our earthly prized possessions, Kimura learned to not attach his life to any one particular thing and instead draw from all things as a whole.
Kimura’s non-attachment kept him from being devastated by grief, a significant factor in differentiating him from a person who ages more rapidly, according to Buksbazen. It is not that he did not mourn for the deceased family members or belongings, but by not being attached to their inevitable mortality, he was able to let go.
In essence, Kimura did not search for a reason to live – for livingitself became its own reason.
7. Stay Close to Nature
Born into a farming family, Kimura and his six siblings grew up touching the earth. Kimura worked in a post office for 38 years and returned to farming after retirement until he was 90 years old. Even in his 100s, he continued to take long daily walks and do some weeding.
Besides providing fresh air and vigorous exercise, farming is all about producing life and seeing the physical results of your work, according to Buksbazen. This brings forth enormous gratification. People who work in an office shuffling papers often do not get to see the results of their labor. Farming can also become a type of meditative practice, helping to calm the mind and live for the present.
8. Have Gratitude
“It’s not me,” Kimura insisted, when people marveled at his age. “I could not make it on my own strength. It's because of the strength of everyone around me.”
Kimura embodied Kansha, meaning gratitude, a core value in Japanese culture. To anyone he came in contact with -- his family, the caretaker, a visitor -- he clasped his hands in prayer and bowed with sincerity, a touching display of gratitude so rare in today’s age it almost felt like a lost art.
Gratitude, especially when part of a daily practice, is associated with the release in the body of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine, all of which have significant roles in cardiac and mental health, according to Buksbazen.
9. Laugh Often
Kimura was a concentrated dose of the human spirit and had a deep-bellied, contagious laugh. It was impossible not to smile around him.
“I choose to spend my life with as much cheerfulness as possible,” said Kimura, whose stories of adversity were peppered with a hearty sense of humor.
Dr. William Fry of Stanford University has studied the effects of laughter for thirty years and compares it to "inner jogging," claiming that laughing 100 times a day is as beneficial as ten minutes of rowing. A good laugh can boost the immune system, relax the muscles, and improve mental functions such as memory and creativity. Which makes it no surprise that frequent laughter is a common personality trait among centenarians, according to a 2012 study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.
10. Break Life Up Into Small Parts
Kimura said he woke up each morning and wished that it would be a good day, never imagining the days would add up to his title of oldest living man.
In the 2009 interview with Mainichi Shinbun, Kimura said that on his 90th birthday, he set a goal to reach the age of 100. Once he turned 100, his new goal was to reach 110. The reporter asked if, now that he was 110, he planned on reaching 120.
Kimura laughed and said, “That might be a stretch.”
One of the things that make people overwhelmed when they are in a challenging situation is that they try to handle it all at once, which releases huge amounts of stress chemicals, according to Bukszaben. Breaking things up into small steps relieves much of this stress and makes them feel more conquerable. It keeps us in the present. It helps us achieve great things.
My talk with Kimura came to an end and he thanked us for coming, saying what a waste it must have been for us to travel so far just to see him. I stood in awe of Kimura’s energy, how it seemed to burst from some infinite inner geyser, too powerful to be held back by the realities of an aging body. As the nurse led him out, I told him that although he had lived a long life, he still seemed very young.
He turned around and quipped like a confident athlete headed to a race, "This is just the beginning!”
Kimura left behind a trail of laughter in the room and a reminder to us all that life -- as I’ve once heard it put -- is but "an endless unfolding.” That we are never too old for new beginnings.