A girl born in Japan today can expect to live to age 86. Japanese life expectancy has increased 30-years since 1947. A series of papers in the British medical journal, The Lancet, finds the Japanese success has cultural, social and political roots.
The remarkable improvement in Japanese health began with the rapid economic growth of the late 1950s and 1960s. The government invested heavily in public health, introducing universal health insurance in 1961, free treatment for tuberculosis and cutting childhood deaths through vaccination and treatment of intestinal and respiratory infections.
Following the control of infectious diseases, Japan tackled its high death rate from stroke with salt reduction campaigns and the use of drugs to control blood pressure.
But beyond the government's initiatives, there are attitudes and cultural practices among the people of Japan that have also helped, says the article by Professor Kenji Shibuya, of the department of global health policy at the University of Tokyo, and colleagues.
"First, Japanese people give attention to hygiene in all aspects of their daily life," they write. "This attitude might partly be attributable to a complex interaction of culture, education, climate [eg humidity, temperature], environment [eg having plenty of water and being a rice-eating nation] and the old Shinto tradition of purifying the body and mind before meeting others."
"Second, they are health conscious. In Japan, regular check-ups are the norm. Mass screening is provided for everyone at school and work or in the community by local government authorities. A systematic check-up of the whole body, referred to as a human dry dock, is another type of health screening, which is popular amiong business people - they stay at clinics or hospitals for several days to undergo thorough physical examinations.
"Third, Japanese food has a balanced nutritional benefit and the diet of the Japanese population has improved in tandem with economic development over the past five decades."
Another aspect of Japan that contributes to the cohesiveness and prosperity of their society is income equality. Japan has the narrowest gap between rich and poor in the industrialized world.