Riddle of vanishing centenarians exposes malaise in Japanese life


TOKYO LETTER:Macabre details of old people’s remains are symptomatic of family ties unravelling, writes DAVID McNEILL

When social workers turned up recently at the Tokyo home of 111-year-old Sogen Kato – officially listed as the city’s oldest man – they found his mummified body in a back bedroom. Stacks of newspapers nearby suggested he had been dead for 30 years.

Kato’s 83-year-old son told the police this month that about 10 days after his father “disappeared” into the bedroom he noticed a bad smell. He reportedly waited a full two years to check again when he found that dad had turned into a partially decomposed skeleton. Then he just went on living with the corpse.

Inevitably, the Japanese media fed greedily on the macabre details of the story as it dribbled out during the slow holiday period. As with most cases of apparently irrational human behaviour, a rational – if venal – explanation was at hand: Kato’s family had been collecting his pension since the early 1980s and had a monetary interest in keeping his death secret. But it turns out that this was far from an isolated case.

Around the country local authorities have been literally calling door-to-door since to determine how many more pensioners are “missing” – officially recorded as alive but actually long since departed to the great bureaucrat-free nirvana in the sky.

So far, they have uncovered over 280 (of 41,000 recorded) centenarians who have “vanished”. Nagano health officials crossed out the name of a 110-year-old man officially registered as the prefecture’s oldest person.

In Kobe city, the missing include a 125-year woman – making her Japan’s oldest person. Another man listed as 127 years old – probably the oldest on the planet – died over 40 years ago. That’s very likely the tip of the iceberg: more than 10,000 people over the age of 70 were reported missing last year alone.

The implications are potentially profound. Japan has long been proud of its citizens’ longevity – men here have an average life expectancy of 79.59 years – the fifth-longest in the world, while Japanese women hold the planet’s top spot at 86.44 years. Those remarkable statistical claims appear to have been badly mauled by flawed record-keeping.

But the wider impact of the growing scandal is more disturbing for Japan, a country that supposedly reveres its elderly. Interviewed by incredulous reporters, the children and grandchildren of the missing pensioners have often sheepishly admitted to having no idea where they are.

Some walked out the door years ago and never returned. Many have cut off all contact with their families by choice and live – and sometimes die – alone. According to the Japan Times, the authorities have uncovered 16,000 unidentified dead over the past 15 years. Thousands of elderly people are simply falling through the social cracks.

In one case – not atypical – officials searching for 113-year-old Fusa Kuruya found her 79-year-old daughter living at the registered address. When they asked where her mother was she said they hadn’t seen each other since 1986. According to Japanese media reports, the daughter claimed she thought her mother was living with her brother.

Commentators have taken to the airwaves to take potshots at these apparently cold-hearted relatives, while often neglecting the bigger social picture – the breakdown of family ties under the strains of modern urban life.

Japan’s public records system, which is built largely around an antiquated system of family registration called the koseki, assumes that the family unit – inherited from a time when this was a nation of tight-knit local communities – is still the bedrock of the nation.

Old people are still supposedly being cared for by their families, except many are not – they’re living alone.

The state would prefer that the older system stays intact – for one thing, it means that the burden of caring for Japan’s legions of elderly remains within the family’s four walls.

More than 22 per cent of the nation’s population is aged 65 or older, according to the national statistics bureau, a figure set to rise to 40 per cent by mid-century. Caring for those people will put an enormous burden on state finances – newspapers regularly warn that the public pension system is essentially bankrupt.

The fact that some families have carried on receiving state pensions years after their parents left or died has distracted the media from this wider problem. Many Japanese people see these families as greedy or uncaring. But as the economy declines and the number of elderly rises, there are likely to be many more such cases.

For better or worse, pensioners increasingly find themselves a burden on families unable to care for them, and the state has done a pretty poor job of filling in the welfare gap. Thousands of old people live isolated lives and die unannounced and unnoticed.

It’s not quite as bad as a time when families took their old into the mountains to die. But it’s getting there.