Tracking Down Japan's Missing Centenarians

Eldery Japanese exercise during Respect for the Aged Day in Tokyo in 2009 i

Elderly Japanese exercise on the grounds of a temple in Tokyo in celebration of Japan's Respect for the Aged Day on Sept. 21, 2009. Japan prides itself on the world's longest life expectancy but is struggling with a disturbing footnote to that statistic -- revelations that hundreds of thousands of people listed as its oldest citizens are either long dead or haven't been heard from for decades. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
Eldery Japanese exercise during Respect for the Aged Day in Tokyo in 2009

Elderly Japanese exercise on the grounds of a temple in Tokyo in celebration of Japan's Respect for the Aged Day on Sept. 21, 2009. Japan prides itself on the world's longest life expectancy but is struggling with a disturbing footnote to that statistic -- revelations that hundreds of thousands of people listed as its oldest citizens are either long dead or haven't been heard from for decades.

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Monday is a national holiday in Japan — Respect for the Aged Day. But these days, senior citizens are provoking as much angst as admiration.

Last summer, Tokyo's oldest man turned out to be mummified remains. The bones of another would-be centenarian, it turned out, were being stored in her son's backpack.

Both cases involved pension fraud. A government survey of centenarians nationwide released earlier this month found 230,000 citizens were "missing." Authorities believe most of these had died during war or national disasters, or had moved abroad. Citizens aged 65 and over make up close to one-quarter of Japan's population; by 2050, that figure will rise to almost 40 pct.

A visit to the personal registry department of Suginami Ward, a district of Tokyo, sheds light on how a quarter-million went missing. Local government offices such as these are the eye of the storm over what went wrong with Japan's record-keeping.

Service is typically prompt and efficient — but in this case, appearances are somewhat deceiving.

Breakdown Of Old System Of Family Records

About 20 percent of citizen records nationwide are still documented on paper. Suginami Ward didn't finish computerizing its records until earlier this year.

But the main culprit in the missing elderly scandal is the antiquated but entrenched system of family records, known as koseki, or "household register." The koseki is a genealogist's dream. It neatly lists every member of a family, along with details of all major life events — a birth, death, marriage and divorce certificate, all in one. When Japanese get married, they announce the thrilling news by saying, "We filled out the family register."

Susumu Oi is section chief of the ward's records department.

"The koseki is your ID, from cradle to grave, based on the family unit. It's proof of your roots," he says.

Koseki date back to the late 19th century and were originally intended as a means of conscripting soldiers. The system worked well as long as Japanese lived in extended families, stayed put at one address, and were dutiful about keeping their records up to date.

But in a highly mobile society of single householders, where filial piety is a relic of the past, the koseki registry system seems to have broken down. Oi and other authorities believe the problem has less to do with widespread fraud — despite the recent high-profile cases — than with a system that may have outlived its usefulness.

"If no one in your family reports births, deaths and marriage, these won't be recorded in the koseki," Oi explains.

That's why a number of residents listed at age 150 — and even one man still going strong at age 200 — have turned up on the books.

"I was so shocked, it's unbelievable. It's a kind of nightmare," Takako Sodei, a gerontologist and professor emeritus at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo.

Sodei says it's high time to dump household registers and adopt an individual ID system. She warns that the missing-seniors revelations are just the tip of the iceberg.

"If the local government tried to find the whereabouts of people over 70 or 75, the number will be doubled or maybe sometimes three times," Sodei says.

Challenges To Monitoring The Elderly

That prospect has occurred to another Suginami Ward official, Yoshihisa Wakui, head of the senior citizens section. The recent scandals forced his department to rush out and check the pulse of several hundred centenarians in his territory — only one still unaccounted for. He is now pondering what to do about the rest of the elderly on his watch.

"It's not feasible to physically check every single elderly person in this ward. We now have 54,000 residents aged 75 and over. So we need to monitor them indirectly," he says.

The ward is trying to keep tabs discreetly on seniors by monitoring their use of public services like health care and meals on wheels.

According to Japanese government statistics, the share of the population aged 65 and older hit a record high of 22.7 percent last year.

Sodei fears that Japan's prolonged economic malaise means that many more Japanese are already depending on an elderly parent's pension to survive — and that, unless the ID system is modernized, more deaths may be quietly swept under the tatami mat.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.