NISHIHARA  - Sweet tropical smells drift through Shinkichi Tawada’s laboratory as he stirs an amber liquid that he believes could be the secret behind the historic longevity of people in southern Japan.
The elixir is an extract from a plant known locally as “getto”, and he says experiments show it can prolong life by as much as a fifth.
“Okinawa has for decades enjoyed one of the longest life-expectancy rates in the world and I think the reason for this must lie in the ingredients of the traditional diet,” said Tawada, a professor of agronomy at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.
Tawada has been studying getto, part of the ginger family known variously as Alpinia zerumbet, pink porcelain lily or shell ginger, for the last 20 years and now believes his work is beginning to pay off.
In a recent experiment on worms, those fed on a daily diet of getto lived an average of 22.6 percent longer than the control group.
The plant , which has large green leaves, red berries and white flowers, has been a feature of Okinawan food for centuries and still grows in the wild. And while the people of past centuries would not have known that it is rich in resveratrol - an anti-oxidant also found in grapes - they knew that it was good for them, said Tawada. “Traditionally, Okinawans have always felt that eating muchi - a winter dish consisting of rice paste wrapped in a getto leaf - would protect us from colds and give us strength,” he said.
‘People eat too much fast food’
But things are changing in Okinawa and the traditional diet, which was rich in locally-grown vegetables, fish and seaweed, is losing ground to the steakhouses and burger chains that crowd the streets of Naha, the island chain’s capital city. Those fast food joints originally sprouted to serve the 19,000 United States servicemen who are based on the island as part of a defence treaty between Washington and Tokyo, but are now popular among the locals - even if the soldiers, sailors and airmen are not.