In graying Japan, scandal over 'missing' 100-year-olds

August 12, 2010

Tokyo -– It could have the makings of a barely credible mystery novel: dozens of missing senior citizens, the circumstances of their disappearance clouded by suspicions of foul play by their closest relatives.

But the search now under way for dozens of missing Japanese aged 100 or over is proof that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Japan’s failure to keep tabs on its oldest residents is not only an administrative embarrassment: It also casts doubt on the health of family and community ties, and could even mark the discovery of a hidden wave of pension fraud in one of the world’s fastest-graying societies.
Super centenarians around the world
At the time of writing, 75 centenarians remain unaccounted for in 19 of the country’s 47 prefectures. The Health Ministry, meanwhile, is reportedly investigating cases involving 840 people over the age of 85 in connection with potentially fraudulent pension claims.
The extraordinary search began last week after it was discovered that a 113-year-old woman listed as Tokyo’s oldest resident had not been seen for more than 20 years. When welfare officials attempted to contact Fusa Furuya at her home in the capital, her 79-year-old daughter told them she hadn’t been seen since around 1986.
The officials were directed to a second address just outside the city, only to find that Furuya’s “home” had been bulldozed to make way for a highway.
Days earlier, police found that Sogen Kato, listed as Tokyo’s oldest man, had been dead for more than three decades. They discovered his mummified corpse, still in its bedclothes, at the home of his octogenarian daughter and her family, 32 years after he reportedly retreated to his room to become a “living Buddha.”
Relatives of Kato, who would have been 111, have been arrested on suspicion of abandoning a body and receiving millions of yen in pension payments.
The scale of the centenarian crisis is in part a symptom of impressive improvements in living standards and healthcare. In 1963, there were only 153 centenarians in Japan. The number has since soared to 40,399, according to the Health Ministry, 4,800 of them in Tokyo.
The problem is also partly legal. Strict privacy laws introduced in 2005 have made the job of tracking down any Japanese citizen much harder. Welfare officials say they do not have the authority to forcibly inspect the homes of centenarians if other members of their family object. In many cases, local authorities in possession of personal data are unable to pass it on to social workers.
(Source: The Christian Science Monitor)