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The second in a 3-part series on the economic impact of aging in Japan

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The second in a 3-part series on the economic impact of aging in Japan

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In July 2010 police found the body of an 111 year-old, nominally Japan’s oldest man, lying in bed. The problem was that he had died 30 years earlier. By the time he was discovered, his 81 year-old daughter had collected JPY9M (about US$109,000) in pension payments. Subsequent investigations showed that this was not an isolated incident:

  • Tokyo’s oldest woman, aged 113, had not been seen since the 1980s
  • A woman who, if alive would be 125, was registered as living in a park in Kobe

Ultimately the Justice Ministry found 230,000 "missing" centenarians.

What’s behind the problem?

The causes run from ineptitude to some dark motivations.

· Official records are kept on the Family Registry that records births and deaths. Any resident in Japan can tell stories about its horrendous inaccuracy. When looking at the missing 230,000 figure the Justice Ministry said some might have died in World War II, their deaths going unreported in the turmoil. Others may have emigrated without reporting their change of status.

· A 50% rate of death duties also discourages families from reporting the event. This is particularly so when the family home needs to be sold to meet the tax burden. Presumably this was the case in Yamaguchi prefecture where records showed one of its residents still alive at 186.

· The social practice that parents would live with their children and grandchildren and the woman as the main caregiver is now an anachronism. The National Institute of Population and Social Security estimate that a third of Japanese over 65 years-old now live alone. Further, in 55% of married households, both spouses work leaving little capacity to provide care. This breakdown in social cohesion means a large body of Japanese elderly has no family to turn to when their peers pass on. Many therefore die alone – a situation that is common enough to enter the language as “kodokushi” meaning to die a “solitary death”.

· Lengthy waiting periods for public aged care homes is also part of the story. More telling however is while the standard of physical care is high, Japan lags much of the developed world in psychological and social aspects of care leading some elderly to prefer a kodokushi death to being institutionalised. Related to this, suicide rates have increased. Petty crimes by seniors such as shoplifting have also risen, partly out of economic necessity but also as a means of seeking any form of human attention.

· The most disheartening are families hiding the deaths of relatives in order to claim their pensions.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that there is a lot of money tied up with the missing centurions. Moving forward, Japan's Health Minister is considering face-to-face meetings with citizens over 110 year-olds to confirm their vitality.

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