Japan wrestles with mystery of missing centenarians

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The Independent Online

Japan prides itself on having the world's longest life expectancy but is struggling with a disturbing footnote to that statistic – revelations that hundreds of people listed as its oldest citizens are either long dead or haven't been heard from for decades.

The mystery of the missing centenarians has captured the attention of this rapidly greying nation with reports of scamming relatives and overworked social workers and sad tales of old people, isolated and forgotten, simply slipping out of touch with society.

The story unfolded in late July when police discovered that Sogen Kato, who would have been 111 and was thought to be Tokyo's oldest man, had actually been dead for 32 years, his decayed and partially mummified body still in his home. Police are investigating his family for possible abandonment and pension fraud. That discovery led officials around the country to check up on the centenarians in their own districts, and what they found has been shocking.

The woman listed as Tokyo's oldest, Fusa Furuya, born in July 1897, is also missing. Her last registered residence was long ago converted into a vacant lot. In the western city of Kobe alone, officials are trying to track down more than 100 unaccounted-for centenarians, including a woman who, if still alive, would be 125.

That case and three others of 120-plus residents in Kobe are almost certainly examples of lax book-keeping.

According to the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks individuals of extremely old age, the oldest person is 114-year-old Eugenie Blanchard, a French woman born on 16 February, 1896. She became the oldest after Japan's Kama Chinen died in May a week before her 115th birthday.

Japan has 40,399 people aged 100 or older, according to its annual health ministry report marking Respect for the Aged Day. Though that total now may be a few hundred lower. Japanese women can expect to live 86 years, the longest in the world, and men nearly 80.