It’s ironic that one of the most overworked populations in the world is also the country with the longest average lifespan.
Japan has one of the most grueling work ethics in the world, where the average employee is expected to put in more than 80 hours of overtime per month. In prior posts I wrote about a Japanese colleague who worked himself sick to the point where he came into the office with an IV drip; while another Japanese colleague sat at his desk to the point of unconsciousness, only to wake up in the ER and demand his work laptop from the hospital bed. From these examples, it is easy to see how the word ‘karoshi,’ or death from overwork, came to be part of the everyday Japanese lexicon.
Yet despite these horrendous working conditions, which also involve much smoking and drinking (the average Japanese smoking rate is 22% compared to 17% in the US), the average Japanese lifespan clocks in around 84. This is significantly higher than the US life expectancy at 77.
So how do the Japanese have a long life when they work so hard and drink so much? Is it the food and diet? The climate? Does it all boil down to genes?
The Japanese secret to a long life is in the bathtub
In the West, Americans and Europeans prefer a morning shower to an evening bath. In fact, Americans and Europeans take showers 90% of the time and rarely find an excuse to hop in the tub. Similar to the USA, the Chinese also prefer to shower, with most Chinese homes foregoing a bathtub altogether.
In contrast, the Japanese take a bath 70-80% of the time, with 10% of the population settling for only a shower. In general, the bath is a mandatory, night-time ritual for most Japanese families — and this routine pays off in terms of health benefits.
A twenty year long survey of over 30,000 Japanese participants revealed that a daily bath is not only relaxing, but it can lower risk of cardiovascular disease by 28% and stroke by 26%. Additionally, the Japanese will often visit hot springs where they receive even more natural benefits from the mountain of minerals in the spring water, which help with blood circulation, oxygen flow and even skin problems.
When I lived in Japan, I noticed the Japanese compromised on many aspects of their lives for the sake of a career. Many salarymen subsisted on an unhealthy diet of convenience store food and Yoshinoya. A hungover and exhausted salaryman with bloodshot eyes and a crumpled suit is a common sight on the Yamanote line in Tokyo.
Yet no matter how late the tired Japanese worker came home, they would always slink into the bath for a good long soak before they hit the futon. I noticed that the bath was one aspect of life the Japanese would never sacrifice.
Melting Away the Fatigue
Similar to most Americans, I hardly ever took a bath.
That all changed after I moved to Japan.
During my first few months in Japan, going to a Japanese hot spring was intense culture shock as it involved stripping down naked in public and bathing with a bunch of strangers. Although the first few outings to a Japanese hot spring were embarrassing and awkward, I had to admit that my body was on cloud nine after a long soak in those natural pools. In fact, the experience was so revitalizing I became hooked. In a matter of months I became a hot spring junkie.
Soon, the weekly visit to the hot spring was not enough. In an attempt to fully assimilate to the Japanese way of life, I told myself I would commit to taking a bath on a daily basis. Although it involved an intense struggle with the complicated digital panel to operate my high-tech Japanese bathtub, I soon became a master of the Japanese art of taking a bath.
Every time I submerged into the tub and fully surrendered myself to the waters, I always thought of a phrase that my Japanese friend said to me during my first hot spring outing.
“The hot water will melt away your fatigue and heal you.”
If baths are so good for us, why don’t Americans take more of them?
The reason American’s don’t take baths all boils down to the same reason we work through our lunch break and forego cooking for doordash.
Showers are quicker. Baths are not efficient.
Since my departure from Japan, my bath tub time has dropped precipitously. My once daily bath ritual is now nothing more than a monthly pamper. In America, I don’t have time to fill up a bath tub and soak in it. Now, I take the quickest showers I can to move on with the day’s next task. A bath is a time luxury that I can’t afford.
I must also add that American bathtubs are vastly inferior to their Japanese counterparts, which are much deeper and can reheat water. If I had a Japanese bathtub in the USA, I am sure I would take many, many more baths.
Yet on those rare days where I actually find the time to fill up a bath tub and fall back into the warm embrace of those waters, I can literally feel my fatigue melt away.
I’m convinced that, in addition to diet and exercise, a frequent bath is the key to a long life (and better skin!).
Do you like baths? Or are they a waste of water and time?