The macabre story of the “111 year old” Tokyoite who turned out to have been dead for some 30 years while his family continued to receive his deceased wife’s public pension payments for the last six years (some English-language reports claim that they were receiving his pension payments but one Japanese story has some details that contradict this take) quickly morphed into a much bigger story about handwringing over social neglect and government incompetence as a search for the “oldest” Tokyo resident, a “113 year old” woman, ended at an empty fenced-in lot. By the end of the August 5 workday, a nationwide effort to track down the 40,399 centenarians living in Japan had uncovered 71 missing individuals. This CNN video clip picked up on the social angle—the deterioration of family and neighborhood ties—while this WaPo report carried a touch of both. But the numbers fail to tell us anything of the sort. There’s some truth to the incompetence angle, but not much. Let me explain.
The final national numbers are not in, but the city of Osaka, with 809 residents on its registries* who are or will be centenarians as of September 15**, give us a fair-sized sample. Of the 809, the Osaka municipal government decided to check on the 108 who had not received Long-Term Care Insurance benefits during the last two years, which they properly considered good cause for suspecting that those individuals may no longer resided at their places of registry, and wound up failing to locate 64, of whom 19 were foreign nationals. Now does that mean that Osaka failed to keep track of 64 out of 108, or 59.3%, of its centenarians? But that assumes that a similar proportion of the remaining 701 would, if nothing goes corrected, be suffering the same fate as the missing 64. It seems far-fetched that these 200 year old residents (give or take a couple) who left tracks in the national healthcare system in the last couple of years will somehow go missing as they move to another municipality or to that Big Nursing Home in the sky without the fact being duly recorded in the Osaka registries. Is the ultimate leakage then more like 64 out of 809, or 7.9%? Not so. Remember that there were a lot more of their age cohorts when they came into this world. That means that most of their age cohorts in Osaka had their deaths or relocations duly registered in the municipal records. To save hours of time tracking down the actual numbers, let’s take the available most recent number of Osaka newborns, 22,892 in 2007 as a surrogate. Is 0.28% (64 over 22,892) still unacceptably high? Perhaps. But this is patently wrong. The oldest missing Osaka centenarian clocked in at 127. So the fail rate for the system is actually 64 over 22,892x(27+1), or, 0.01%. And we are not accounting for the over-127 crowd, who apparently managed to be captured by the registry system on their way out, so to speak.
Are we there yet? Not quite, for there’s an interesting twist to the Osaka numbers. 45 out of the 64 missing centenarians are registered in Nishinari Ward. This should ring a bell for any self-respecting Japanese journalist, for Nishinari Ward represents the fringes of the post-WW II Japanese economy. Specifically, like Sanya, its Tokyo counterpart, it served as the place where day laborers and welfare recipients congregated in crowded, often unsanitary hostels. It was exactly the kind of place where down-and-out forty-, fifty-, sixty somethings who had lost their connections with family and friends back in the day, smack dab in the age group where people who would show up as missing centenarians today would show up. Take them out as mostly a local phenomenon and we are down to 0.03% for the percentage of the Osaka population.
But that’s not end of it. It is unlikely that the 45 Nishinarians, given their harsh living conditions, had survived nearly to the end of their first century, let alone beyond it. (For example, lethal tuberculosis thrived long after it had been brought under control in the rest of Japan.) More likely, they must have died and slipped unnoticed through the cracks in the underbelly of the registry system decades ago. Ironically, the municipal welfare authorities became aware of 48 (out of the 64) missing Osakites, including the 45 Nishinarians, when they conducted a survey when the national Long-Term Care Insurance system was launched in 2000. However, they had failed to notify the registry authorities of the fact. Embarrassing? Certainly. Administrative malfeasance? Surely. But not exactly the kind of administrative neglect towards the elderly that the reports suggest.
Going back to the social angle, the “111 year old” mummy had been in the family for over 30 years. The Nishinari examples suggest that many if not most of the other cases also go back decades. If something went wrong in Japan, it happened a long time ago. And Japanese society (and local bureaucracies) still cares enough that almost all deaths—at least in contrast to what the media reporting suggests—go duly recorded in the public records. Note also that the daughter of the “113 year old” woman had continued paying her mother’s national healthcare insurance premiums in the hopes that she would some day return.
Now I happen to suspect that there is something to be said for the conventional wisdom about the fading of family and neighborhood connections in Japan. But it is not supported by the issue of the missing centenarians. The best media stories use facts to illuminate; too often, they merely illustrate. In this case, they actually mislead.
* There are two types of residency registries in Japan, one for Japanese and another for foreigners. They are administered by cities, townships, villages and, in the case of the major cities, wards. The two sets will be merged no later than 15 July 2012.
** I don’t know why Osaka picked this date. The national census opts for zero hour October 1.