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

The search is on in graying Japan for dozens of missing 100-year-olds. The cases have raised questions about fraying family ties as well as pension fraud.

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Experts say there is an urgent need for reform of the residency registration system if the embarrassment of the past week is not to be repeated.

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“We have an old residency system, based on written registration, that depends on reports by third parties,” says Ryuichi Kaneko of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in Tokyo.

“We need to be able to identify people with something like a social security number, but there is opposition to that because of privacy concerns," he continues. "Ultimately this happened because of social change. The days when three or four generations of the same family would live under one roof are gone. Young people are increasingly isolated, with no family, no spouse, no children, and no prospect of grandchildren.”

Mr. Kaneko’s comments reflect a wider concern that the ties that once bound small communities have weakened with urban migration and the growth of high-rise communities, in which voicing concern about a neighbor is too easily interpreted as an unwarranted intrusion. The problem has been compounded by the reluctance of the police to interfere in what they regard as domestic problems.

The media lamented the lack of vigilance among neighbors and authorities, asking how people who had presumably lived in the same neighborhood for years could vanish and not be missed.

“What is worrisome is the weakening of elderly people's ties to their relatives and local communities in this fast-aging society,” the Yomiuri newspaper said. “The functions of local communities, in which residents keep an eye on elderly people through daily contact as neighbors, seem to be on the decline.”

Weakening social bonds

Prime Minister Naoto Kan echoed those concerns in parliament. “This is because human bonds are weakening,” he said. “Society as a whole tends to sever human relationships.”

In an ironic twist, the revelation that Furuya and Kato were missing or dead came as local authorities, having failed to contact either person directly for decades, attempted to update their records ahead of a national holiday held every September as a mark of respect for the elderly.

On that day, people who have turned or are about to turn 100, receive a silver chalice and congratulatory letter from the prime minister.

This week, local officials have been pursued by TV crews as they scuttle around Tokyo on bicycles in a desperate attempt to unravel the mystery of what some are calling the “missing Methuselahs” before the chalices are due to be handed out, this time in person.

Given Japan’s skewed demographics, the task of tracing its oldest citizens promises to become even more problematic. According to the projections by the population research institute, the number of centenarians will reach 128,000 over the next decade; by the middle of the century there will be more than 680,000.

“This is serious,” says Mr. Kaneko, “Not just for centenarians, but for the elderly population in general. The government is aware of the problem, but these structural changes are occurring so rapidly that we seem unable to adapt quickly enough.”