WORLD'S OLDEST MAN AND WOMAN AND MISSING CENTENARIANS IN JAPAN

CENTENARIANS IN JAPAN

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98-year-old woman
According to data by the Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, one in 20 Japanese females has a high probability of reaching the age of 100. Japan’s average life expectancy at birth is 83 years, a figure projected to exceed 90 for women by 2050. The number of Japanese centenarians rose 7.6 percent from a year earlier to 51,376 as of September, and there are 40 centenarians per 100,000 people in the country, which has the world’s highest proportion of elderly, according to Japan’s health ministry. The U.S. has an estimated 80,000 centenarians, or about 25 per 100,000 people, according to researchers at the Okinawa Centenarian Study. [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama, Bloomberg, December 28, 2012]

A survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimated there were 51,376 in 2012, up 3,620 from a year earlier. Women accounted for a record 87.3 percent of all centenarians in 2012. They numbered 44,842, up 3,248 from a year earlier. Male centenarians totaled 6,534, up 372. Centenarians totaled 153 in 1963, when the annual survey was first made. It took 35 years to top 10,000 in 1998. The count then grew rapidly, surpassing 20,000 in 2003, 30,000 in 2007 and 40,000 in 2009. [Source: Kyodo, September 15, 2012]

A total of 47,756 centenarians were counted in 2011, up from 44,449 in 2010. Of the 2011 total 41,484 were women. In September 2009, the number if centenarians topped 40,000 for the first time, with 86 percent of them being women. The number has tripled in the previous decade and is up from 1,000 in the early 1980s and is expected to reach 1 million by 2050.The oldest woman at the time was a 114-year-old woman in Okinawa who did not want to be identified. The oldest man was a 112-year-old man from Kyoto Prefecture.

The city of Kumamoto in Kyushu also has one of the largest populations of 100-year-olds in the world. The locals attribute their longevity to hard work, partying, vegetables and stubbornness. One 103 year old woman told National Geographic, "I used to carry 60 kilos [132 pounds] of rice on my back! I drink sake every night. Then I sing the karaoke!" The rest homes in Kumamoto are so lively they are said to be visited by Peeping Toms. [Source: Tracy Dahlby, National Geographic, January 1994]

People who become centenarians are given a special silver cup from the Prime Minister’s office inscribed with the Chinese character for happiness. These days the cups are getting smaller because so many Japanese are reaching 100 and the budget for the cups has not been increased. In the first year the cup was given out, 1963, there were 153 recipients. In 2008, there were 19,768.

In 2005, it was discovered that some of the people of the oldest citizen list in Japan were dead. In 2006 it was decided to discontinue the list.

Japanese Longevity Records

Twenty-two on people on a list of the world’s 64 oldest people compiled by the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group are Japanese. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the second longest living person ever (whose age can be confirmed) was a Japanese woman named Shigechiyo Izumi, who died in 1986 at the age of 120 years and 237 days. For a while she held the record but a Frenchwoman named Jean Calment broke it in 1996. Izumi also holds the record for the longest working career. She began working at a sugar mill in 1872 and retired as a sugar cane farmer in 1970 at the age of 105, after working for 98 years.

Japan’s oldest person in 2012 was Jiroemon Kimura, 115, from Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture. He was born April 19, 1897. He is currently recognized as the world's oldest male by Guinness World Records. The oldest woman is Koto Okubo, a 114-year-old in Kawasaki. She was born Dec. 24, 1897. [Source: Kyodo, September 15, 2012]

In May 2010, Japan’s oldest person, an 114-year-old in Okinawa died. With her death 113-year-old Chiyono Hasegawa in Saga Prefecture became the oldest person in Japan. She celebrated her 114th birthday in October, 2010 with workers at the nursery home in Kiyama, Saga, where she is living.

In April 2008, Kaku Yamanaka, the oldest person in Japan at that time, died at the age of 113 and 4 months at a hospital in Yatomi, Aichi Prefecture. She was born in 1894 and became Japan’s oldest person in February after the death of Tsuneyo Tyoibaga. Yamanaka had lived at a nursing home in Yatomi since 1992. She liked to sing karaoke and said the secret to her longevity was drinking a nutrition-supplement drink every day. Tyoibaga died at the age of 113 and seven months in February 2008. She was born in May 1894 and had five children and 20 grandchildren.

According to the Guinness Book of Records 114-year-old Yone Minagawa from Fukuchimachi, Fukuoka Prefecture became the world oldest person when the previous record holder?114-year-old American Emma Fauts Tillman---died in January 2007. Minagawa died in August 2007.

Kamato Hongo of Kagoshima in Kyushu became the world’s oldest person in March 2002, when the previous recordholder an 115-year-old American died. Hongo was born on September 16, 1887. She was 114 years old when took the title and was a 116 when she relinquished it after her death in October 2003. Hongo was born in the town of Isenchom the, same place where Izumi lived. She was known for her habit of sleeping for two days and then staying awake for two days.

Japanese 115-Year-Old Becomes Oldest Man in History

As of April 2011, Kyotoite Jiruouemon Kimura was the world’s oldest man. He turned 114 that month and took the No.1 position after the previous world’s oldest man died in Montana. Kimura spends most of his time in bed but always eats three meals a day. Another Japanese man, Tanekichi Onishi is the second oldest man at age 111.

In December 2012, Bloomberg reported: “Kimura, a 115-year-old Japanese man born when Queen Victoria still reigned over the British Empire, became the oldest man in recorded history today, Guinness World Records said. Kimura, of Kyotango, western Japan, was born April 19, 1897, in the 30th year of the Meiji era, according to London-based Guinness. That makes him 115 years and 253 days as of today, breaking the longevity record for men held by Christian Mortensen of California, who died in 1998 at the age of 115 years and 252 days. The oldest woman in recorded history, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, died in 1997 at the age of 122. “He has an amazingly strong will to live,” Kimura’s nephew Tamotsu Miyake, 80, said in an interview. “He is strongly confident that he lives right and well.” [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama, Bloomberg, December 28, 2012]

Kimura became the world’s oldest currently living person on Dec. 17, when 115-year-old Dina Manfredini of Iowa died, according to Guinness and the Gerontology Research Group. Manfredini was born 15 days before Kimura. Kimura was in a hospital when Bloomberg checked on him, Yasuhiro Kawato, head of the section for elderly welfare at Kyotango’s city hall, said. “His condition has improved, and we’re not worried, but the doctors said it would be best if he stayed in the hospital into the new year,” Kawato said. The world’s second-oldest living person, Japanese woman Koto Okubo, turned 115 on Dec. 24. [Ibid]

Kimura is only the third man in history to reach 115 years of age, Guinness said in a statement today. He’s one of just four male supercentenarians, or people aged 110 or more, currently known to be alive, the organization said. “To be able to present Mr. Kimura his second Guinness World Records title is truly an honor,” Guinness Editor-in- Chief Craig Glenday said in the statement. “Kimura-san is an exceptional person.” [Ibid]

Kimura lives with his grandson’s widow, Eiko Kimura, in a two-story wooden house he built in the 1960s. Eiko wakes him up every day at 7:30 a.m. and takes him by wheelchair to a dining room for breakfast consisting of porridge and miso soup with potatoes and vegetables. He has never suffered from serious diseases, can communicate and spends most of his time in bed, Eiko said. “Grandpa is positive and optimistic,” she said. “He becomes cheerful when he has guests. He’s well with a good appetite. Even when he falls ill, I can tell he’ll recover.” [Ibid]

Life of the Oldest Man in History

Kanoko Matsuyama of Bloomberg wrote: Kimura, the third of six children, was born as Kinjiro Miyake in Kamiukawa, a fishing and farming village sandwiched between the mountains and the Sea of Japan. His parents, Morizo and Fusa Miyake, were farmers who grew rice and vegetables. Only two years earlier, Japan’s success in the First Sino- Japanese War had established the nation as the dominant power in East Asia. Less than a year after Kimura was born, the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor would trigger the Spanish-American War. [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama, Bloomberg, December 28, 2012]

According to Kimura’s nephew Tamotsu, the 115-year-old’s birthday is actually March 19. Records say he was born April 19 because an official misprinted the month when records from merging towns were consolidated in 1955, the nephew said. After finishing school at the age of 14 as the second-best student in his class, Kimura worked at local post offices for 45 years until his retirement in 1962 at the age of 65. He also worked at a government communication unit in Korea in the 1920s, when the peninsula was under Japanese rule, and returned to marry his neighbor Yae Kimura. [Ibid]

As his wife’s family didn’t have a male heir, he changed his name to Jiroemon Kimura, making him the ninth person in the family to bear the name. Since retiring, he has enjoyed reading newspapers and watching sumo wrestling on television. He sometimes helped his son farm until he was about 90 years old, Eiko Kimura said. Kimura was a disciplined, serious man when he was younger, Miyake said. Even when he drank with his brothers, he would sit straight and keep quiet, Miyake said. [Ibid]

His wife, Yae, died 34 years ago at the age of 74. Four of Kimura’s five siblings lived to be more than 90 years old, and his youngest brother, Tetsuo, died at 100, Miyake said. Kimura’s living descendants include five children, 14 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren. The mayor of Kyotango, a fishing center facing the Sea of Japan that’s known for snow crabs and oysters, congratulated Kimura on the town’s Facebook page. “Mr. Kimura, you are respected and adored as an example by our citizens aiming to make Kyotango a center of longevity and health,” wrote Mayor Yasushi Nakayama. [Ibid]

Oldest Man in Japan and the World in the late 2000s

In January 2007, 112-year-old Tomoji Tanabe of Miyakonoji, Miyazaki Prefecture, was recognized by the Guinness Book of records as the oldest man in the world. Tanabae was born in September 1885, he had eight children and lived with his fifth son and his son’s wife. He claimed the title after a 115-year-old man in Puerto Rico died and became the oldest man in Japan in 2006.

In September 2007 Tanabe celebrate his 112th birthday, He told reporters as he walked around with a fan that he planned to live “indefinitely.” He said he had rice, miso soup with seaweed and goya boiled in soy sauce for dinner. In 2008 he celebrated his 113th birthday. He marked the occasion with his daily glass of milk and said “I don’t want to die yet.”

In June 2009, Tanabe died at his home in Miyakonojo Miyazaki at the age of 113. He died in the same town he was born. He worked as civil engineer and attributed his longevity to “not smoking and not drinking,” drinking milk everyday at 3:00 pm and read reading the newspaper and keeping a diary.

For a while Yukichi Chuganji, also from Japan, was the oldest man in the world. He turned a 114 in March 2003 and died in September 2003. He was born in Chikushino and lives in Ogori, both Fukuoka Prefecture on Kyushu, and over the years worked as a silkworm breeder, bank employee and welfare officer. He became the world’s oldest man in January 2002 when an Italian man who was three months older died.

World's Second Oldest Person Dies in Japan at 115

In December 2011, Chiyono Hasegawa---the recognized as the world's second oldest person died of natural causes at a care facility in Saga southwestern Japan on Friday, Saga Prefecture governor Yasushi Furukawa confirmed. She was 115 years old. "Chiyono Hasegawa was the pride of not only the citizens of Saga, but the pride of the Japanese people," the governor said. "I pray for her soul from the heart." [Source: BNO News, December 2, 2011]

Hasegawa, who turned 115 on November 20, was the oldest living person in Japan and the second oldest living person in the world, following behind only Besse Cooper from the United States who is 115 years, and about 75 days older than Hasegawa.

Following Hasegawa's death, the oldest Japanese person currently alive is now Jiroemon Kimura, who is currently 114 years and 227 days old. Kimura, who lives in Kyoto, is currently also the world's oldest man and now the third oldest person in the world.

The oldest undisputed person ever from Japan was Tane Ikai who died in July 1984 at the age of 116 years and 175 days. The oldest undisputed person to have ever lived in the world was Jeanne Calment who died in France in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days.

Kin and Jin, the 100-Year-Old Twins

Two of Japan's most beloved citizens in the 1990s were are Kin Narita and Gin Kanoe, a set of twin sisters who were born on August 1, 1892 to a farmer in Nagoya, Gin once said, "The secret to longevity is to have an attitude of live and let live." The twins walked two hours every day well into their hundreds.

Known affectionately as Kin and Gin, they appeared regularly on television, flew to Taiwan for a record-breaking gathering of twins 1995, and showed up at the gala wedding ceremony for the sumo wrestler Akebono in 1998. The twins celebrated their 105th birthday in 1998 by planting trees and playing golf for the first time. Kin mean gold and Jin means silver.

Kin married Ryokichi Narita in 1910. She had 11 children, 11 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and a great-great grandchild. She was hospitalized for the first time when she 100 after a fish bone got stuck in her throat. In 1993 she and her sister had cataract surgery. Gin married in 1913 and gave birth to four daughters.

Kin died at the age of 107 on January 23, 2000 of heart failure at her home in Nagoya. She had been bedridden for several days with the flu. She skipped breakfast and kept sleeping and died around 10:30am. Gin died at the age of 108 on February 28, 2001. Her health had deteriorated steadily since her sister died.

Missing Centenarians in Japan

In 2010 a big deal was made about “missing centenarians” after Tokyo prepared to give an award to its oldest “living” man---111-year-old Sogen Kato---and found he was a mummy that had been dead for 30 years. No death announcement was made it seems so family members living at the house where the body was found could collect his pension checks (more than $100,000 in pension funds had been deposited into his bank account, from which a large amount had been withdrawn).

Kato’s daughter and husband, both in their 80s, and two grandchildren, 49 and 53, lived in the house, They said Kato “wanted to be a living Buddha” and they left him alive in his room. The 81-year-old daughter and a 53-year-old granddaughter were later arrested on charges of pension fraud and given suspended prison sentences. The judge in the case said, “The defendant committed a malicious crime with selfish motivation of securing revenue for her family. However she had given back the pension benefits and expressed remorse for the crime.” Authorities then found many similar cases of relatives collecting pension payments on behalf of aged residents who were missing or dead. In most cases, the older relative had moved away, but relatives failed to report this to keep collecting pension payments.

After the Kato debacle the Tokyo government then prepared to give an award to Tokyo’s oldest living person, 113-year-old Fusa Furuya, and found that she hadn’t lived at her address for decades and nobody knew where she was (a daughter said she last time she talked to her mother was in 1990). In other cases: the house listed as the residence of a 106-year-old Nagoya woman had been torn down and replaced with a parking garage many years ago and the bones of a woman registered as being 104 years old were found in the backpack of her 64-year-old son in Ota Ward, Tokyo. The son said his mother died in 2001 and he received ¥1.2 million in pensions until May 2004, when he moved to a new apartment.

After all this a survey of local records was undertaken. It found over 234,000 centenarians were unaccounted for despite still being registered alive under the family registry system. Of these over 77,000 were listed as being at least 120 years old and 884 were listed as being over 150. A man in Nagasaki was listed as being born in 1810, making him 200 if he were indeed alive. The longest-lived person recorded in modern times is a Frenchwoman who died in 1997 at age 122.

In Gumma Prefecture 184 people were listed as being over 150. A large portion of the Japanese missing centenarians were listed on residential registrars as “living with kin.” Many were still listed simply because no one had every reported their death, with some having disappeared in World War II.

Impact of the Missing Centenarians

The revelations of the missing centenarians were a shock of a country that had traditionally prided itself for looking after its elderly. The whole episode got a fair amount of international media coverage and brought attention to Japan’s record-keeping practices. It also raised questions about the welfare of elderly in Japan and brought doubts about Japan’s reputation for having the world’s longest living people.

Some blamed the problem on the increasing isolation of the elderly and increasing isolation of a society as a whole that lets people slip through the cracks, without even the closest family members knowing where they are.

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “The sheer size of the problem underscores the challenges Japan faces in caring for its growing numbers of elderly “ or in these cases, just keeping count of them.” “I can feel that these people were probably isolated from the rest of society,” Japan’s justice minister, Keiko Chiba, said, “given that we do not even know if they were dead or alive.” The ministry said the findings would not affect Japan’s average life expectancy figures “ which are the highest in the world, at nearly 83 years “ because those figures were based on census data, not the records in question. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, September 10, 2010]

Reasons for Missing Centenarians in Japan

The Justice ministry blamed poor bookkeeping and lax communication for most of the cases, saying that the individuals had apparently died or moved away, but that no one had bothered to update the records. Although Japan keeps a number of records on individuals though the family registrar and tax, pension, health care and residency records local government are also restricted by tough privacy laws.

In Japan, births and deaths are recorded using a family registry system introduced in the Meiji period in the 19th century. There were reports of officials failing to log deaths on registrars and people who died alone, unnoticed. Many local government said they didn’t follow up on missing centenarians because they lacked the manpower and time to do so.

There were a number of cases where local governments didn’t bother to do house checks and relied on nursing care and health care insurance programs for information---and when they did investigate the cases themselves they didn’t go far with their investigations. In some cases the residence of the missing centenarians were checked and no one was found living there or relatives said they had no idea where the missing persons were yet the persons’ name were kept on government registers.

Local governments said they were hampered by outdated records privacy issues, not having the means to deal with cases that involve moving from one prefecture to another, not having the personnel to investigate all the cases, and the practice of keeping names on registrars if there was any possibility that a centenarian being checked was alive. One official in Tokyo told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Even if we try to speak to such centenarians face-to-face, we don’t have any authority to forcibly meet and confirm their existence if family members living with them refuse access.”

One local government welfare worker who was in charge of investigating the elderly said that found old people sometimes refused to open their doors, even when they were home. When contacted by telephone she said they often said things like: “He’s fine, So please don’t visit our home.”

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane, Japan Zone, Andrew Gray Photosensibility

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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