Mystery of Japan's 230,000 missing centenarians

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The Independent Online

After a summer of scouring family registries and calling door-to-door, the Japanese government has found that more than 230,000 of its centenarians listed as alive cannot be found.

The search followed a series of macabre stories about the country's neglected elderly. Officials found the mummified body of Tokyo's oldest man – thought to be aged 111 – in a bedroom, where it had apparently lain for for 32 years.

In another case, the corpse of a 104-year-old woman was found bundled into the backpack of her 64-year-old son, who said he could not afford to bury her. The stories were repeated around the country. One man listed as 127 years old, who would probably have been the oldest on the planet, died more than 40 years ago.

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's top spot at 86.44 years.

The country's health ministry says that the impact of its flawed record-keeping on these remarkable statistics will be "minimal." 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.

Commentators have taken to the airwaves to take pot shots at these apparently cold-hearted relatives, while often neglecting the bigger social picture, the breakdown of a 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 are living alone.