Japan’s gifts for new centenarians under threat

Government says it can’t afford traditional cup for those who turned 100 in past year

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe. File photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe. File photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA


Every year for more than 50 years, Japan’s new centenarians have been honoured with a silver sake cup and a congratulatory letter from the prime minister.

But as the country prepares to mark Respect for the Aged Day next month, the latest crop of citizens who turned 100 in the past 12 months face disappointment, as the soaring number of centenarians has put a new strain on the government’s coffers.

The saucer-like sakazuki, a gift from the government since 1963, could be replaced by a cheaper version or be scrapped altogether this year, after the health and welfare ministry said it could not afford to keep up with the number of new recipients.

In 1963 Japan had just 153 centenarians, and as recently as 1998 the number stood at just 10,000.

At the last count Japan’s 100-plus age group numbered almost 59,000, and that figure is expected to rise when the government releases new population data before this year’s celebration.

Last year the ministry spent 260 million yen (about €1.8 million) on giving the cups - each worth about 8,000 yen (about €58)- to almost 30,000 people, including 25,000 women.

Several years ago the cup’s diameter was slightly reduced amid concern over rising production costs, but the strain on the ministry’s finances could see the sakazuki replaced with a cup made from a cheaper metal, according to Japanese media reports.

Local media also pointed out that some people die before the gifts can be distributed, forcing them to be scrapped.

Other options being considered are a different - and cheaper - commemorative gift, or restricting the official offering to the prime minister’s letter.

“We are reviewing it, but we have not made any firm decisions,” a health ministry official told AFP.

Ageing population

Demographers predict that Japan’s centenarian population will continue to grow as the general population ages - the result of regular medical examinations, universal healthcare and, among Japanese over a certain age, a fastidious attachment to the traditional low-fat diet of fish, tofu, vegetables and rice.

Japanese women live an average of 86.3 years, putting them at the top of the global longevity table last year, while Japanese men were in fourth place, with an average lifespan of 80.5 years.

More than a quarter of Japan’s 126 million people are aged 65 or over, according to the most recent census, and the proportion is expected to grow to about 40 per cent by the middle of the century.

It remains to be seen how most Japanese senior citizens will react to any decision to scale back official recognition of their accomplishment.

Until recently the titles of world’s oldest man and woman were held by Japanese people.

Sakari Momoi, who cited healthy eating and a good night’s sleep as the secrets to a very long life, died in July at the age of 112.

Misao Okawa, formerly the world’s oldest person, died in April this year, weeks after her 117th birthday.

Japan’s oldest citizens were at the centre of a scandal in 2010 when it emerged that at least 200 centenarians had gone missing from local government records.

In some cases, people who had died were still listed as alive, including a woman mistakenly recorded as having reached 125, whose registered home had been turned into a park in 1981.

Guardian service