Tracking Down Japan's Missing Centenarians More than 230,000 Japanese listed in government records as being at least 100 years old can't be found and may have died long ago, according to a recently released government survey. An antiquated system of official family record-keeping is at the heart of the scandal.
NPR logo

Tracking Down Japan's Missing Centenarians

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129992827/129998207" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Tracking Down Japan's Missing Centenarians

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

Today is a national holiday in Japan. It's Respect for the Aged Day. Lately, though, senior citizens are provoking as much angst as admiration.

Last summer, Tokyo's oldest man on record turned out to be mummified remains, and the bones of another would-be centenarian were being stored in her son's backpack. Both cases involved pension fraud.

This led to an emergency survey of centenarians nationwide, which revealed that what seems to be an astonishing number - citizens, 230,000 of them, are missing.

As Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo, poor record-keeping seems largely to blame.

LUCY CRAFT: To understand how a quarter-million Japanese went missing, you need to visit a local government office like this, the eye of the storm over what went wrong with Japan's record-keeping.

This is the Personal Registry Department of Suginami Ward, a district of Tokyo. 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.

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

Mr. SUSUMU OI (Section Chief, Records Depart, Suginami Ward): (Through translator) The koseki is your ID, from cradle to grave, based on the family unit. It's proof of your roots.

CRAFT: Koseki date back to the late 19th century, 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 household registry system seems to have broken down. Susumu Oi and other authorities believe the problem has less to do with widespread fraud than from a system that may have outlived its usefulness.

Mr. OI: (Through translator) If no one in your family reports births, deaths and marriage, these won't be recorded in the koseki.

CRAFT: Which is why a number of residents listed age 150 - and even one man still going strong at age 200 - have turned up on the books. Takako Sodei is professor emeritus at Ochanomizu University.

Ms. TAKAKO SODEI (Gerontologist, Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University): I was so shocked; it's unbelievable. Yes, so it's a kind of nightmare.

CRAFT: Sodei, a gerontologist, says it's high time to dump household registers and adopt an individual ID system. She warns: The missing seniors revelations are just the tip of the iceberg.

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

CRAFT: That prospect has, of course, 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. Hes now pondering what to do about the rest of the elderly on his watch.

Mr. YOSHIHISA WAKUI (Senior Citizens Section, Suginami Ward): (Through translator) 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.

CRAFT: The ward is trying to keep tabs discreetly on seniors by monitoring their use of public services like health care and Meals on Wheels.

But gerontologist Sodei fears that unless the ID system is modernized, more deaths may be quietly swept under the tatami mat.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.