Japan’s Missing Centenarians

It appears that having the world’s second-largest number of centenarians (people over 100 years old) has its hazards. It all started in late July, when the mummified remains of a man thought to be Tokyo’s oldest living male were found at his home by police. Sogen Kato would have been 111 years old on that day, had he been alive. His family claims that he shut himself up in his room without food or water 30 years ago, declaring that he wanted to be a living Buddha. He is thought to have died around 1978 and remained in his room while the rest of family (his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren) proceeded with life as usual in other parts of the house. Apparently, local officials visited the home periodically, but the family always refused to let the government workers in. Eventually, one of Kato’s grandchildren visited a local police station (in late July) to say that when family members tried to check on his room on March 25, they saw a skull, and the police searched the house the same day. The family, which didn’t appear particularly saddened by Kato’s death, is currently under investigation for fraudulently collecting Kato’s pension payments after his death.

As you could imagine, shortly thereafter Japanese government officials began to wonder whether some of their other centenarians might be missing. On August 2, it came out that the woman recognized as the oldest in Tokyo (at the supposed age of 113) was not living at her registered address. When asked about her mother’s whereabouts, her 79-year-old daughter (who is listed on residential records as living with her) simply told officials, “My mother doesn’t live here.”

Earlier this week, officials announced that local governments in 11 prefectures have no notion of the whereabouts of 33 people who would be 100 years old or older. And now, there appear to be 75 people missing, 56 of whom are men. These announcements followed a declaration by Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Akira Nagatsuma that investigations will be soon launched into the status of pension recipients who would be 110 or older across Japan.

All in all, this is a little bit creepy. According to a recent Health and Welfare Ministry survey, approximately 40,000 Japanese residents are 100 years of age or older, with an astonishing 87 percent of them being women. As mentioned above, this is the second-largest number in the world—the U.S. currently hold the top spot, with about 96,000. Anyway, as Japan’s population ages, there are going to be more and more of these people, and it’s obvious that the country needs to give a little more thought as to how it’s going to deal with keeping this vulnerable population not only accounted for (which appears to be a challenge at the moment) but also safe and well cared for. Health care has been a real issue lately—though Japan has signed agreements with countries like Indonesia and the Philippines to help deal with a shortfall in nursing staff, these imported workers have to pass a qualifying exam in order to stay in Japan—and only 3 of the approximately 1,000 people who took the first exam passed, so I think they have a bit of a problem there. Unless Japan really does want its health care to be provided by robots.

Anyway, it will probably all get worked out, knowing Japan and how politically important this issue is likely to be in such a rapidly aging society (and old people vote, remember). Other countries will have to deal with this soon too—the world is getting old! Due to its sheer size, China is projected to have the most centenarians by 2050, with the number of elderly in the U.S., Japan, and a number of other countries continuing to rise steadily as well. Time to tackle the realities of aging on a societal level. And keeping track of these people who be a good first step.