Unique Diet And Lifestyle


Okinawa is a small island in Japan, which is known for the longevity of its inhabitants (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001). The Okinawan diet and lifestyle is generally credited for the longevity that most Okinawans experience (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001). This is a pertinent question to ask because Okinawa has a high level of tourism. Tourism, followed by agriculture, are the two leading sources of income for the Okinawan people (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 155). As Okinawan diet and lifestyle is one of the unique factors of the island, a question that may arise is how high levels of tourism may impact the health and the environment of this island and what products in tourism might offer responses to this question.


There are two areas of focus in this essay. The first area of focus is the issue of the longevity of the Okinawans, that is, how far is it accurate to say that Okinawans live longer, and if so, what are the reasons to which such longevity may be attributed. The second area of focus in this essay is on the effects of tourism on the Okinawan islands and its communities. As mentioned earlier, Okinawa has attracted a fair share of tourism and a relevant question that arises is whether such tourism has any detrimental impacts on Okinawa and its communities. To this purpose, the literature on detrimental effects of tourism can provide insight into empirical data into how Okinawa, other similar small islands, or other places respond to tourism.

It will be useful to mention that literature has conflicting findings on impacts of tourism on local environments and communities. Broadly, there are two arguments that are generally made out in literature in context of impact of tourism on local communities. The first argument focuses on the economic impacts of tourism to argue that local communities are appreciative of tourism because of the economic and development benefits of tourism (Andereck, et al., 2005, p. 1056). The second argument is based on the cultural and environmental impacts of tourism on local communities and it is shows locals being repelled by tourism, if such tourism is intrusive and becomes a nuisance for the local communities (Diedrich & García-Buades, 2009, p. 513). For instance, literature based on Chinese communities, indicates that tourism may have some negative impacts on the host communities, leading to local communities viewing tourism as something that is intrusive in nature (Gu & Ryan, 2008, p. 644). It may be noted that although the second argument focuses on the cultural ill-effects of tourism, it does not necessarily deny the economic benefits of tourism. Similarly, the first argument may emphasise on the economic benefits of tourism, but it does not necessarily mean that there are no environmental and cultural ill-effects. What this may posit is that whether or not tourism is benefitting the communities or not something that can be answered only be reference to the possible economic, cultural or environmental impacts. In other words, even though a community may be economically benefitted by tourism, it may be negatively impacted in the contexts of health, environment and culture. Therefore, in order to assess the impacts of tourism, a more holistic approach is required.

Tourism and Eco-Tourism: Issues and Arguments

One of the most important contexts in which tourism has been assessed with respect to its impact on host communities is that of environmental impact of tourism. Another important context is that of cultural impact of tourism. Both these contexts are relevant to a discussion on how tourism impacts local communities in Okinawa, Japan. The peculiar and unique cultural life of the Okinawans, which includes their diet, as well as their environment on account of being an island destination, makes the issue of culture as well as environment important to the discussion on how tourism may impact both the culture as well as the environment of the island.

Tourism as an activity is unique in the way that it brings together the host communities with the products of tourism as well as the consumers of tourism, which are the tourists. This interaction between host communities, products of tourism and the consumers in an urban environment is brought out succinctly as follows:

As mentioned in the quote above, there are certain consequences of tourism for the host communities. These consequences involve the impacts of tourism as an activity on the culture and environment. Contrary to the argument that tourism has negative impacts on host communities’ culture and environment (Diedrich & García-Buades, 2009; Gu & Ryan, 2008); there is some empirical evidence that tourism can have positive impacts on local communities (Özdemİr, et al., 2014). Research based in Turkey, presents some evidence of positive impacts of tourism for local communities in specific contexts of environment and ecology (Özdemİr, et al., 2014, p. 46). In Turkey, expansion of tourism activity in certain areas has led to the expansion of alternative tourism activity, specifically environmental tourism, which involves sustainable forest management as a form of recreational tourism activity, leading to a positive impact on forest management in Turkey (Özdemİr, et al., 2014, p. 47). Turkey is not the only small country to be benefitted by tourism in context of environments, and there are studies that show such positive impacts of tourism on local environments and cultures, around the world. A study based in China, indicates that the local heritage and architectural preservation was given a boost by tourism activity that was specifically focused on cultural tourism (Gu & Ryan, 2008, p. 641). The same study also had positive reports about impacts of tourism on the local environment (Gu & Ryan, 2008, p. 642). This study reported that local community members had positive perceptions of impact of tourism on their environment, which was cleaner as a consequence of tourism activity (Gu & Ryan, 2008, p. 642). This finding contrasts with the findings of another study that seeks to explore the impacts of tourism on the local environment and ecology of Caribbean islands, which shows that there are negative collateral effects of tourism on the environment of the host country and threaten local ecology (Zappino, 2005, p. 5). The particular suggestion made in this study is that while tourism activity in a limited amount does not necessarily impact environment, mass-tourism can threaten the local environment (Zappino, 2005, p. 4). It may be inferred from this study that tourism activity in the Okinawa islands should be limited and Okinawa should not be exposed to mass-tourism, as that may have negative impacts on the local ecology and environment as the case of Caribbean islands show.

There is support for this thesis from other studies that show negative effects of tourism on the local environments, especially in places where ecology is sensitive or a high point for the local communities. For instance, a study based in Tibet shows that mass-tourism led to garbage management problems and pressurised the local environment with problems with garbage disposal (Byg & Salick, 2009, p. 161). The local ecology in ecologically-sensitive Tibet is threatened by mass-tourism; and while limited tourism activity may not have affected the local ecology in the same manner, there are decided effects of mass-tourism for this sensitive location. In this regard, it may be noted that increased tourism in Tibet has led to threat of climate change also and growing concerns on threat to species in the fragile ecosystems (Kang, et al., 2010, p. 3; Xu, et al., 2009). In Tibet, retreating glaciers pose difficulties in managing water resources which are further pressurised due to influx of tourists in more than manageable or sustainable numbers.

Ecotourism and cultural tourism as a response to negative impacts of tourism

In tourism literature, there is an emphasis on the development of alternative tourism methods, such as eco-tourism or nature tourism, which has the objective of using tourism as an activity for motivating conservation efforts, while maintaining the potential economic benefits of tourism activity for the local communities (Ashworth & Page, 2011, p. 3). It is nature tourism, has been reported to help grow tourism industry without damaging the environment. As discussed in the above section, local communities and natural environments are both impacted considerably by their interaction with tourism products and consumers of these products. In order to provide a buffer to these impacts without too much negative impact on the economic benefits that tourism can provide to the local communities, the method of nature tourism or eco-tourism is employed. It may also be noted that tourism is not always seen as a negative impact activity by the local populations, therefore, the encouragement of tourism may be useful, while mitigating the negative impacts of tourism. Kim, et al (2013) sought to explore the perceptions of local communities with regard to tourism and its impact on their culture, environment and society. The positive impacts of tourism may also include greater responsibility for environment preservation and investment in the developing the local tourist destinations from the perspective of nature tourism (Kim, et al., 2013, p. 528). Research indicates that positive impacts of tourism have included the development of heritage sites and museums, as well as recreational centres, that can be beneficial to the local communities as well as tourists (Ashworth & Page, 2011, p.3).

To come back to the positive impacts of tourism on the environment of the host destinations, specific benefits include incentivising of conservation of nature which is especially seen in the contexts of nature or eco-tourism (Hall & Lew, 2009, pp. 45-46). In order to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism for the host country environment, certain steps can be taken, or approaches adopted, which can mitigate these ill-effects. An example of such an approach or tourism policy can be seen in the development of a model of 'High Value, Low Impact' tourism by Bhutan, which is a small nation, with a sensitive ecology (Nyaupane & Timothy, 2010, p. 969). Bhutanese government has adopted this tourism policy so as to attract only high value tourists who can contribute in the economic sense without impacting the sensitive ecology of the small nation (Nyaupane & Timothy, 2010, p.969). There is one common factor between Bhutan and Okinawa, which can make the experiences of the former relevant to the latter. Bhutanese people, like the Okinawans, are known for their unique culture and emphasis on health and well-being of their communities (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156).

Eco-tourism or nature tourism is a form of sustainable tourism. One of the seminal definitions of sustainable tourism was provided by Butler (1993) defined sustainable tourism as follows:

“tourism that is developed and maintained in an area (community, environment), in such a manner and such a scale that it remains viable over an indefinite period and does not degrade or alter the environment (human and physical) in which it exists to such a degree that it prohibits successful development and well-being of other activities and programmes” (Butler, 1993, p. 29).

As per the definition of sustainable development by Butler (1993), such tourism that does not impact the community or its environment negatively is sustainable tourism. It may be said that sustainable tourism is beneficial to the economy, culture and the environment of the host destination and does not degrade the local environments and culture. Okinawa can benefit from tourism if it maintains sustainable tourism.

Okinawans are known for their health and longevity. One of the reasons for their health is their lifestyle and food habits (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156). A question that may arise is whether the food habits of Okinawans are likely to be eroded due to exposure to tourism and its products. In this context, it is useful to mention cultural impacts of tourism, particularly with reference to food habits and the impacts of globalisation (through tourism) on food habits.

Ritzer (2015) wrote about the forces of globalisation, which he argued are synonymous with ‘Americanisation’ or ‘McDonaldisation’. McDonaldisation refers to the increased threat of globalisation to the cultural and social lives of the local communities (Ritzer, 2015). The contemporary consumerism culture (Americanisation) is responsible for domination of local cultures by particular capitalist characteristics (Ritzer, 2015, p. 413). Tourism industry is affected by forces of globalisation due to improved modes of travel and communication (Ritzer, 2015, p.416). Due to the increased globalisation and movement of tourism, local cultures also adapt and change to accommodate global consumerism culture, due to which there is erosion of local cultural habits, including food habits.

A response to globalisation and threat to local cultures by tourism may be found in alternate tourism, particularly cultural tourism (Salazar, 2012). Cultural tourism has potential to balance economic incentives provided by tourism as host communities get involved in cultural tourism, which is based on the use of local cultures to create tourism products (Salazar, 2012). One of the methods that can be used in this context is volunteering in local communities, which sees tourists volunteer in local activities and communities, such as, farming or fishing, which also benefits the local communities as well as makes their culture attractive to the visiting tourists (Hall & Lew, 2009, p.205).

In case of Okinawa, the essential attributes in diet is one of the reasons why Okinawans have managed to maintain longevity, despite their low socio-economic status as compared to the rest of Japan (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156). Okinawans eat a diet that is different from even the traditional Japanese diet, as the Okinawan diet has more protein as they eat boiled pork and konbu seaweed, and less salt as compared to the rest of the Japanese (Okinawans eat about 3 g less salt as compared to the Japanese main islands), which may explain why Okinawans have the highest life expectancy in Japan (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156). Due to their protein rich and less salt diet, Okinawans have fewer heart disease and stroke cases (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156). Okinawans also eat “large quantities of fish, soy products, green vegetables containing anti-oxidants, sweet potatoes, watermelon and tomatoes” (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001, p. 156). Thus, the Okinawan diet is different from Japanese main islands (Cockerham & Yamori, 2001). Although, Japan as a whole has a high life expectancy, Okinawa has the highest life expectancy, most likely in the world, increasingly attributed to its low fat and high carbohydrate diet. It is thought that Okinawans manage to “avoid or delay major age-associated diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes” (Willcox, et al., 2009, p. 502S). While the Okinawa diet has sparked interest for its low calorie and nutrition rich quality, younger Okinawans have moved gradually away from traditional diet and allowed their dietary patterns to get westernised. As explained by one study:

“The traditional Okinawan diet has undergone rapid post– World War II Japanization and Westernization, most notably in terms of increased fat intake. There has also been a decrease in carbohydrate quality, with diversification away from the sweet potato as the staple carbohydrate and toward higher consumption of rice and breads (both mostly white) and noodles as carbohydrate sources” (Willcox, et al., 2009, p. 503S).

Therefore, globalisation has had a significant impact on the Okinawan diet. Sweet potato, which is a major source of nutrition in the Okinawan diet has given way to higher consumption of refined grains and noodles. This has a negative impact on the health of younger Okinawan people, who show higher tendency to obesity and heart diseases. The question is whether tourism can provide an answer to this by modelling tourist products that are inclined towards Okinawan diet. Alternative tourism may provide a solution here, with use of volunteer tourism, or food tourism, or even diet tourism taking centre stage for Okinawa prefecture. By modelling tourist products that are specifically aimed at promoting the Okinawan culture and diet, Okinawa can use its unique diet to its economic advantage. Food tourism may be a good model for alternative tourism in Okinawa.

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To conclude, Okinawa is unique in the context of longevity of its people. The longevity rates of the island are attributed to the diet of the Okinawans, which is rich in protein and carbohydrate and low on calorie and fat. Tourism is the biggest income generator in Okinawa after agriculture. As tourism also brings global values to the host communities, there is a possibility that Okinawan diet may change too much as it adapts to the western diet. If that happens, the health of the Okinawans will suffer. However, as tourism has decided positive impacts for Okinawa’s economy, it would be better to promote alternative tourism models so that the island continues to generate revenue through tourism without compromising on the health and environment. One method of doing so can be to promote food tourism in Okinawa, wherein the tourists can be attracted to try the unique and healthy diet of the Okinawans. This can also involve cooking lessons, and other models of tourism that centre on food.


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