Japan, Checking on Its Oldest, Finds Many Gone
August 14, 2010 By MARTIN FACKLER
TOKYO — Japan has long boasted of having many of the world’s oldest people — testament, many here say, to a society with a superior diet and a commitment to its elderly that is unrivaled in the West.
That was before the police found the body of a man thought to be one of Japan’s oldest, at 111 years, mummified in his bed, dead for more than three decades. His daughter, now 81, hid his death to continue collecting his monthly pension payments, the police said.
Alarmed, local governments began sending teams to check on other elderly residents. What they found so far has been anything but encouraging.
A woman thought to be Tokyo’s oldest, who would be 113, was last seen in the 1980s. Another woman, who would be the oldest in the world at 125, is also missing, and probably has been for a long time. When city officials tried to visit her at her registered address, they discovered that the site had been turned into a city park, in 1981.
To date, the authorities have been unable to find more than 281 Japanese who had been listed in records as 100 years old or older. Facing a growing public outcry, the country’s health minister, Akira Nagatsuma, said officials would meet with every person listed as 110 or older to verify that they are alive; Tokyo officials made the same promise for the 3,000 or so residents listed as 100 and up.
The national hand-wringing over the revelations has reached such proportions that the rising toll of people missing has merited daily, and mournful, media coverage. “Is this the reality of a longevity nation?” lamented an editorial last week in The Mainichi newspaper, one of Japan’s biggest dailies.
Among those who officials have confirmed is alive: a 113-year-old woman in the southern prefecture of Saga believed to be the country’s oldest person, at least for now.
The soul-searching over the missing old people has hit this rapidly graying country — and tested its sense of self — when it is already grappling with overburdened care facilities for the elderly, criminal schemes that prey on them and the nearly daily discovery of old people who have died alone in their homes.
For the moment, there are no clear answers about what happened to most of the missing centenarians. Is the country witnessing the results of pension fraud on a large scale, or, as most officials maintain, was most of the problem a result of sloppy record keeping? Or was the whole sordid affair, as the gloomiest commentators here are saying, a reflection of disintegrating family ties, as an indifferent younger generation lets its elders drift away into obscurity?
“This is a type of abandonment, through disinterest,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo. “Now we see the reality of aging in a more urbanized society where communal bonds are deteriorating.”
Officials here tend to play down the psychosocial explanations. While some older people may have simply moved into care facilities, they say, there is a growing suspicion that, as in the case of the mummified corpse, many may already have died.
Officials in the Adachi ward of Tokyo, where the body was found, said they grew suspicious after trying to pay a visit to the man, Sogen Kato. (They were visiting him because the man previously thought to be Tokyo’s oldest had died and they wished to congratulate Mr. Kato on his new status.)
They said his daughter gave conflicting excuses, saying at first that he did not want to meet them, and then that he was elsewhere in Japan giving Buddhist sermons. The police moved in after a granddaughter, who also shared the house, admitted that Mr. Kato had not emerged from his bedroom since about 1978.
In a more typical case that took place just blocks from the Mr. Kato’s house, relatives of a man listed as 103 years old said he had left home 38 years ago and never returned. The man’s son, now 73, told officials that he continued to collect his father’s pension “in case he returned one day.”
“No one really suspects foul play in these cases,” said Manabu Hajikano, director of Adachi’s resident registration section. “But it is still a crime if you fail to report a disappearance or death in order to collect pension money.”
Some health experts say these cases reflect strains in a society that expects children to care for their parents, instead of placing them in care facilities. They point out that longer life spans mean that children are called upon to take care of their elderly parents at a time when the children are reaching their 70s and are possibly in need of care themselves.
In at least some of the cases, local officials have said, an aged parent disappeared after leaving home under murky circumstances. Experts say that the parents appeared to have suffered from dementia or some other condition that made their care too demanding, and the overburdened family members simply gave up, failing to chase after the elderly people or report their disappearance to the police.
While the authorities have turned up a large number of missing centenarians, demographic experts say they doubt that discoveries of the living or the dead would have much impact on Japan’s vaunted life expectancy figures; the country has the world’s highest life expectancy — nearly 83 years — according to the World Bank. But officials admit that Japan may have far fewer centenarians than it thought.
“Living until 150 years old is impossible in the natural world,” said Akira Nemoto, director of the elderly services section of the Adachi ward office. “But it is not impossible in the world of Japanese public administration.”
Japan, Checking on Its Oldest, Finds Many Gone - NYTimes.com