Aomori Prefecture placed last for both men and women when the latest report of average life expectancy in each of Japan's 47 prefectures was released by the health ministry last week.

On the list, compiled every five years, Aomori has remained rock bottom since 1975 for men and since 2000 for women.

So I decided to visit the prefectural capital city of Aomori, and most of the people I interviewed on the streets seemed unperturbed by the ranking. Their common reaction was that this was no big deal, primarily because the prefecture had been at the bottom of the pile for so long.

Counting the number of his unhealthy habits on his fingers, one man said: "Both my wife and I are smokers. We don't exercise. We drink. And we both love salty foods."

Aside from encouraging people to exercise and quit smoking, the prefecture is also focusing on modifying the region's high-sodium food culture.

In Aomori, both men and women consume 40 percent more salt than the government's recommended daily intake of 8 grams for men and 7 grams for women.

Three years ago, Aomori launched a project to substitute salt with "dashi" (cooking stock) for seasoning.

"Every time I had 'udon' (soup noodles) or pickles outside Aomori, I felt we'd become overly dependent on salt at home," said Ayako Yoshida, 37, a prefectural government official in charge of the dashi project.

Her duties include introducing low-salt school lunches, giving talks on the health benefits of dashi, and promoting sales of "Dekirudashi," a new, locally produced dashi intended for local consumption.

Fortunately, Aomori is amply blessed with materials for dashi--scallops from Mutsu Bay, "shiitake" mushrooms from Towada, "konbu" (edible kelp) from the ports of Oma and Higashidori. And Lake Jusan and Lake Ogawara rank among the top in the nation in "shijimi" clam hauls.

Slogans such as "Oishii gen-en" (Low-salt and delicious) and "Jozu na enbun kontororu" (Smart salt-intake control) were prominently displayed in a supermarket I visited, making me feel certain that Aomori will cease to be the "prefecture with the shortest life expectancy" before long.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.