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Does Longevity Superpower Japan Dream of Healthy, Long Life?

Yasuyuki Fukukawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The Longevity Superpower at the brink of collapse?

It was discovered that the whereabouts of many people aged 100 or older are unknown, and this is becoming a serious problem. The actual number of missing seniors would be significantly larger if people in their 80s or 90s were included. In some cases, it is suspected that pensions have been paid out for these elderly whose whereabouts are unknown, making the issue mysterious. The national and local governments will have to struggle to assess the situation and take countermeasures for the time being.

While this issue could affect future domestic policies for the elderly, the impact would go far beyond that. Currently, Japan is regarded as one of the countries with the highest longevity rate in the world. The average life expectancy of Japanese people in 2009 was 79.6 years for males and 86.4 for females. The latter in particular have retained the top position in the world over a quarter-century. As a result, this average life expectancy has been circulated around the world as an indicator of the levels of medical care and safety measures in Japan, and it is in this context that the current issue has occurred. Following the news, as might be expected, the media overseas raised doubts including, “Could the nation of longevity be a fake?” in Korea, and “Population statistics in Japan are dubious” in Italy, as if Japan as the longevity superpower had actually not been true to its name. Japan-where the proportion of the population aged 65 or above is also the highest in the world, at 22.7 percent-is attracting attention from all over the world as a model of the unprecedented living environment in which humans in super-aged society will have to survive, for better and for worse.

The truth and fiction of average life expectancy

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, the average life expectancy is defined as the expected value of how many years newborn babies would live. Moreover, the average life expectancy is calculated based on data collected in national door-to-door population censuses, instead of the Basic Resident Register whose inadequate management is currently at issue. Therefore, the elderly whose whereabouts are unknown do not impact the Japanese average life expectancy.

Nevertheless, the recent news that the family register has kept the record of a man who was born in 1810-as old as Chopin-made the public a bit upset. In foreign countries, we are sometimes surprised by an old man claiming to be 150 years old, for example-virtually a biological impossibility-or at the population pyramids in developing countries which often have heaps at the ages ending in 0 or in 5, such as 60 and 65-a practice known as age heaping. Regarding such statistical lies as having nothing to do with us, we gerontologists in Japan have regularly used statistical data released by the government. The current problem would be an opportunity for us to reflect on the foundation of our studies.

Above all, births, deaths, and other demographic indicators in Japan are not complete. For example, though national population censuses are generally supposed to be based on complete enumeration, the response rate is below 100 percent every time due to missing data from families who were absent when census takers visited. Recently, it is also said that people’s increased awareness of private information protection or the increase in condominiums with automatic lock doors are driving down the collection rate further. Following this trend, the next national population census conducted this October will allow submitting survey slips by mail, as well as experimentally introduce responses via the Internet in Tokyo. Though Japan will certainly keep its top position of longevity, we would be better off knowing that the data serving as a basis of the average life expectancy incorporates ambiguous elements.

Where did/will Hyakujusha go?

Japanese has the word hyakujusha, which means centenarian. The number of centenarians in Japan reportedly exceeded 40,000 for the first time last year, though it might be slightly dubious now. The oldest record concerning centenarians, which was taken in 1963, shows that the number of centenarians was 153, which is the fewest in history. This means that the figure increased 260-fold within a half century. Most prefectural and municipal governments have a rule that they give special payment as a celebration for the elderly who have reached the age of 100. Accordingly, the first people who became aware of aging in Japan must be local government officials and case workers who had witnessed the surge in centenarians. When they visited such centenarians to give the presents, some of them failed to confirm the existence of the seniors more closely, taking seriously such mysterious explanations from the families as, “our grandpa doesn’t want to see you” or “she left home decades ago.” It is this negligence which eventually led to the current issue of missing seniors.

Whereas it is easy to assign blame to the governments who failed to conduct the necessary confirmation, it is also undeniable that the recent trend of placing priority on privacy has interrupted activities of the governments for collecting information. Responding to national population censuses is an obligation of residents, required by the statistics law. Actually, however, too much emphasis on the protection of private information and security are undermining the accuracy of the census results. In a survey we conducted in the past, many local governments around the country claimed that activities for preventing the elderly who live alone from dying in solitude are being hindered by inadequate information collection for similar reasons. It would be ironic if respecting private information led to disregard for the public information that should be utilized for improving the quality of residents’ lives.

Centenarians today include super-healthy seniors with exemplary lifestyles or genetic characteristics. They would give us various clues that we are searching for about how to live healthy, long lives-not only long, but also active lives. On the other hand, according to a recent study, centenarians who are active enough to travel or walk around only account for 15 percent and bedridden centenarians account for more than 30 percent. The word hyakujusha bearing the sense of celebration and respect does not reflect the reality of the elderly in Japan. If we dream of long, healthy lives, we may be a bit depressed by the fact that many hyakujushas-who were thought to have made the dream come true-are actually not only bedridden, but their whereabouts are unknown.

Yasuyuki Fukukawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Brief biography]
Professor Fukukawa graduated from the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences at Waseda University and received a doctoral degree in Literature. He was a fellow with the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology and a lecturer and associate professor at Seitoku University before assuming his current position. Professor Fukukawa specializes in health psychology and the psychology of aging. Dr. Fukukawa’s publications include The Psychology of Aging and Stress [Rouka to Sutoresu no Shinrigaku] (Koubundou Publishers Inc., 2007); and Essential Gerontology: Understanding Aging [Rounengaku Youron: Oi wo Rikai suru] (co-authored, Kenpakusha, 2007).