Ja­pan copes with rise in cen­te­nar­i­ans

The Guardian - - WORLD - Justin McCurry

The num­ber of Ja­panese peo­ple aged 100 or older has risen to a record high of al­most 70,000 over the past year – a cause for cel­e­bra­tion and con­cern over the so­cial and eco­nomic chal­lenges posed by the coun­try’s rapidly age­ing so­ci­ety.

Ja­pan’s cen­te­nar­ian pop­u­la­tion was 69,785 in Septem­ber, with women mak­ing up just over 88% of the to­tal, ac­cord­ing to wel­fare min­istry es­ti­mates re­ported by Ky­odo News.

The num­ber is up by more than 2,000 from last year, and marks the 48th con­sec­u­tive an­nual in­crease. Ja­pan had just 153 cen­te­nar­i­ans when records be­gan in 1963, and as re­cently as 1998 the num­ber stood at 10,000. It sur­passed 30,000 in 2007, ris­ing to al­most 68,000 last year.

The data was re­leased be­fore Re­spect for the Aged Day on Mon­day, a pub­lic holiday when new cen­te­nar­i­ans – in­clud­ing the Ya­suhiro Naka­sone, for­mer prime min­is­ter – will re­ceive a com­mem­o­ra­tive sake cup and a let­ter of con­grat­u­la­tion from Shinzo Abe, the cur­rent leader.

The dra­matic rise in the num­ber of peo­ple mak­ing it to their 100th birth­day forced the govern­ment to re­duce the di­am­e­ter of the gift – called a sakazuki – in 2009. Two years ago, the ster­ling sil­ver cup was re­placed by a cheaper sil­ver-plated ver­sion to lessen the strain on govern­ment cof­fers.

The cost of hon­our­ing Ja­pan’s su­per-el­derly will con­tinue to rise. The num­ber of cen­te­nar­i­ans will ex­ceed 100,000 in 2023 and reach 170,000 five years later, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Pop­u­la­tion and So­cial Se­cu­rity Re­search.

Ja­panese women have the long­est life ex­pectancy, at 87.2 years, while men rank just be­low Switzer­land and Aus­tralia at 81.01 years, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal last month.

Kane Tanaka, among can­di­dates seek­ing recog­ni­tion as the world’s old­est woman, was born on 2 Jan­uary 1903 – the year the Wright broth­ers flew the first pow­ered air­craft and Mau­rice Garin won the first Tour de France.

Tanaka, who lives in a nurs­ing home in the south-western city of Fukuoka, en­joys board games and solv­ing maths prob­lems, Ky­odo said, and has a taste for sweet bean buns and milky cof­fee.

Her com­pa­triot, Masazo Non­aka, was recog­nised as the world’s old­est liv­ing man in April af­ter the death three months ear­lier of Spain’s Fran­cisco Núñez Oliv­era.

Non­aka, who lives in an inn he once ran in Hokkaido, north­ern Ja­pan, was born on 25 July 1905, the year the Russo-Ja­panese war ended and Al­bert Ein­stein pub­lished his the­ory of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­ity. Non­aka at­tributes his longevity to bathing in hot springs and eat­ing sweets, but his daugh­ter puts it down to his stress-free life, ac­cord­ing to Guin­ness World Records.

Ex­perts have at­trib­uted the steady rise in the cen­te­nar­ian pop­u­la­tion to reg­u­lar med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions, uni­ver­sal health­care and, among peo­ple over a cer­tain age, a pref­er­ence for Ja­pan’s tra­di­tional low-fat diet. But Ja­pan’s su­per-age­ing so­ci­ety is ex­pected to put even greater strain on health and wel­fare ser­vices as the coun­try’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to shrink as a re­sult of the low birth rate.

Abe, who de­scribed Ja­pan’s de­mo­graph­ics as a na­tional cri­sis dur­ing last year’s gen­eral elec­tion, has vowed to re­form so­cial se­cu­rity to al­low work­ers aged 65 or older – who ac­count for one in four of the coun­try’s 127 mil­lion peo­ple – to re­main in em­ploy­ment be­yond the re­tire­ment age. “The key to Ja­pan’s sus­tain­able growth is how we re­spond to the age­ing of the pop­u­la­tion, which is the big­gest chal­lenge for Abe­nomics,” he said. “The prob­lem is pro­gress­ing by the minute, and we can­not af­ford wait­ing around.”

‘The key to growth is how we re­spond to the age­ing of the pop­u­la­tion, which is the big­gest chal­lenge for Abe­nomics’ Shinzo Abe Prime min­is­ter

PHO­TO­GRAPH: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GETTY

Peo­ple work­ing out in the grounds of a tem­ple in Tokyo on Re­spect for the Aged Day

PHO­TO­GRAPH: AVALON.RED

Ja­pan’s (and maybe the world’s) old­est woman, Kane Tanaka, 115, hon­oured by the Fukuoka mayor Soichiro Takashima yes­ter­day

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