Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara was en route to a medical conference in 1970 when his flight was hijacked. For four days he and 130 other passengers onboard lived under the threat of death, as the communist-inspired terrorists stalked the aisles, wielding samurai swords and explosives, demanding to be taken to North Korea. “I expected to die,” says Hinohara, now 94 years old. But the hijackers eventually agreed to release all of the passengers in Seoul, before taking the plane to North Korea. For Hinohara, those four days changed everything. “I believed I was privileged to live,” he says, “so my life must be dedicated to other people.”
Hinohara decided to devote much of the rest of his working days 35 years and counting to helping elderly Japanese learn to make the most of their sunset years. He formed the New Elder Citizens Group to inspire seniors, and in 2001 published an advice book, How to Live Well. (His publishers convinced him to change the title from the somewhat less commercially appealing How to Die Well.) The book became a surprise hit, selling more than 1.2 million copies and solidifying Hinohara’s status as Japan’s guru of healthy aging. His seductively simple message: “If you keep working, if you keep learning something new, you’ll never get old.”
That’s a prescription the nonagenarian doctor and part-time poet, novelist and composer has clearly followed himself. He first joined the staff of St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo in 1941 and stayed on full-time until 1998. He served as president for the last 24 years of his career, which included running the hospital’s response to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in 1995, at 83. When it comes to aging well, Hinohara is less concerned with the specifics of diet and exercise though he personally restricts himself to 1,300 calories a day, sleeps little and avoids water than with promoting the right mental attitude. Japanese people already know how to live a long time, he says, pointing to the country’s 25,000 centenarians. What they need to learn is how to stay productive and engaged after they’ve moved into the third phase of life. “After 75, you can still have potential,” he says. “You need to have the freedom to explore that. You need to start something new, something you’ve never tried before.”
Hinohara sees old age as a time when it’s finally possible to cultivate an individuality that has too often been sacrificed for the sake of work. His own popularity shows just how resonant that message is among Japanese his second advice book also hit the best-seller list, and he receives scores of fan letters every day from readers around the country. Still going strong, Hinohara says he has more books in the works, and he continues to lecture on aging around the world. But he’s beginning to consider making a few concessions to approaching geezerhood. “I think I’ll take up golf,” he says. “I’ll finally have the spare time.”
Energy comes from feeling good, not from eating well or sleeping a lot. We all remember how as children, when we were having fun, we often forgot to eat or sleep. I believe that we can keep that attitude as adults, too. It’s best not to tire the body with too many rules such as lunchtime and bedtime.
All people who live long — regardless of nationality, race or gender — share one thing in common: None are overweight. For breakfast I drink coffee, a glass of milk and some orange juice with a tablespoon of olive oil in it. Olive oil is great for the arteries and keeps my skin healthy. Lunch is milk and a few cookies, or nothing when I am too busy to eat. I never get hungry because I focus on my work. Dinner is veggies, a bit of fish and rice, and, twice a week, 100 grams of lean meat.
Always plan ahead. My schedule book is already full until 2014, with lectures and my usual hospital work. In 2016 I’ll have some fun, though: I plan to attend the Tokyo Olympics!
There is no need to ever retire, but if one must, it should be a lot later than 65. The current retirement age was set at 65 half a century ago, when the average life-expectancy in Japan was 68 years and only 125 Japanese were over 100 years old. Today, Japanese women live to be around 86 and men 80, and we have 36,000 centenarians in our country. In 20 years we will have about 50,000 people over the age of 100.
Share what you know. I give 150 lectures a year, some for 100 elementary-school children, others for 4,500 business people. I usually speak for 60 to 90 minutes, standing, to stay strong.
When a doctor recommends you take a test or have some surgery, ask whether the doctor would suggest that his or her spouse or children go through such a procedure. Contrary to popular belief, doctors can’t cure everyone. So why cause unnecessary pain with surgery? I think music and animal therapy can help more than most doctors imagine.
To stay healthy, always take the stairs and carry your own stuff. I take two stairs at a time, to get my muscles moving.
My inspiration is Robert Browning’s poem “Abt Vogler.” My father used to read it to me. It encourages us to make big art, not small scribbles. It says to try to draw a circle so huge that there is no way we can finish it while we are alive. All we see is an arch; the rest is beyond our vision but it is there in the distance.
Pain is mysterious, and having fun is the best way to forget it. If a child has a toothache, and you start playing a game together, he or she immediately forgets the pain. Hospitals must cater to the basic need of patients: We all want to have fun. At St. Luke’s we have music and animal therapies, and art classes.
Don’t be crazy about amassing material things. Remember: You don’t know when your number is up, and you can’t take it with you to the next place.
Hospitals must be designed and prepared for major disasters, and they must accept every patient who appears at their doors. We designed St. Luke’s so we can operate anywhere: in the basement, in the corridors, in the chapel. Most people thought I was crazy to prepare for a catastrophe, but on March 20, 1995, I was unfortunately proven right when members of the Aum Shinrikyu religious cult launched a terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway. We accepted 740 victims and in two hours figured out that it was sarin gas that had hit them. Sadly we lost one person, but we saved 739 lives.
Science alone can’t cure or help people. Science lumps us all together, but illness is individual. Each person is unique, and diseases are connected to their hearts. To know the illness and help people, we need liberal and visual arts, not just medical ones.
Life is filled with incidents. On March 31, 1970, when I was 59 years old, the plane that I took was hijacked by the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. I spent the next four days handcuffed to my seat in 40-degree heat. As a doctor, I looked at it all as an experiment and was amazed at how the body slowed down in a crisis.
Find a role model and aim to achieve even more than they could ever do.My father went to the United States in 1900 to study at Duke University in North Carolina. He was a pioneer and one of my heroes. Later I found a few more life guides, and when I am stuck, I ask myself how they would deal with the problem.
It’s wonderful to live long. Until one is 60 years old, it is easy to work for one’s family and to achieve one’s goals. But in our later years, we should strive to contribute to society. Since the age of 65, I have worked as a volunteer. I still put in 18 hours seven days a week and love every minute of it.