Friday, August 6, 2010

The case of Japan’s missing Methuselahs

THE Japanese have are known for having both the longest lifespans and the lowest crime rates. But with the discovery in recent days of dozens of centenarians who turned out to have died long before (but whose relatives in some cases hushed it up to collect their pensions), both truisms are now open to question.

The mess began in late July when city officials in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward discovered that Sogen Kato, aged 111 and believed to be Tokyo’s oldest living man, had in fact been dead for 32 years—his mummified body still gathering dust at home while his family collected pension installments. The cash was anything but petty: in the last six years alone, Mr Kato "received" ¥9.5m, or around 110,000 dollars, along with commemorative gifts from the ward in celebration of his longevity.

Yet what started as a single case of fraud has turned into a nationwide epidemic. Once Tokyo began looking into the whereabouts of its eldest residents, it quickly realized it could not trace its eldest women, reported to be 113. Registers stated that she lived with her daughter. When the authorities contacted the daughter, she admitted she had not seen her mother for over 20 years—and did not even know if she was still alive.

Japanese newspapers this week splayed images of welfare workers on mopeds, speeding from house to house as they attempted to confirm the status of the nation’s centenarians, who officially number over 40,000. So far, at least 60 have turned up dead or missing in 11 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, many having passed away years before. In Nagoya, one 106-year-old's address on file turned out to be a vacant lot, and his whereabouts unknown.
The case of missing Methuselahs has sparked a debate across Japan on the state of family ties. Care for the elderly traditionally fell on the family (the government merely subsidizes it), but in now many elderly people live alone. Their deaths may go unnoticed—sometimes for years.

The problem also lies with Japan’s byzantine pension system of overlapping records and faulty databases. In 2007 the nation was stunned to learn that bureaucratic incompetence—stretching back decades—led to the loss of over 50m pension records. Millions of people still cannot be accurately linked to their pension accounts. Now, it turns out that the state, through sloppy bookkeeping and the many lonely deaths of Japan’s greyest members, have lost track not only of the records, but the people themselves. The Economist

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