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No.3 ,Culture  Oct 03, 2010

THE “PANDORA’S BOX” OF MISSING PENSIONERS

“One Hundred Ten-Year-Old Woman Listed as Residing in Arakawa Ward Is Missing”–This headline sounds like any one of the many others that filled the pages of Japanese newspapers starting in late July, but in fact it dates from the Nikkei evening edition printed on September 14, 2005. Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward, where the supposedly 110-year-old woman was listed as residing, had been listing the woman as still alive in the annual report sent to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare for at least three years prior to that date, without confirming that this was in fact true.

Arakawa Ward was obliged to issue that report on the most elderly of its residents, after confirming their whereabouts, for the ministry’s National Longevity List, published annually prior to Respect for the Aged Day in September. The Longevity List includes a roster of the 100 oldest people in Japan, with their names, sex, age, date of birth, and area of residence, based on reports submitted to the ministry by each local government after confirming the whereabouts of its eldest residents as of September 1.

According to Arakawa Ward, the person in charge of confirming whereabouts for the 2005 report visited the home where the 110-year-old woman was said to reside, as had been done in previous years, and was told by her son’s wife that the elderly woman had been moving between her children’s houses. On the afternoon of the day the Nikkei Shimbun article appeared, the same ward official revisited the address and learned, upon asking the son’s wife to again confirm her whereabouts, that her mother-in-law had left home around 40 years ago, in 1962, supposedly to go shopping, but had never been seen again. The ward official said that the woman had previously been reported to the ministry as being alive because she was listed in the ward’s register of residents. In this sense, the incident does not differ at all from the cases of missing centenarians that have been uncovered throughout Japan since late July of this year.

After learning of this case of the unconfirmed whereabouts of the centenarian in Arakawa Ward, who was listed on the National Longevity List, the MHLW immediately instructed local governments nationwide to again confirm the whereabouts of any of their residents included on the roster. This was the moment that opened the “Pandora’s box” for the problem of missing elderly.

But right after that moment the lid covering up the problem was reattached. This was because, at that same time, a tabulation error that greatly undermined the credibility of the National Longevity List was discovered that resulted from the carelessness of the MHLW and local governments.

On September 14, 2005, the same time it was learned that the 110-year-old woman in Arakawa Ward was missing, the ministry clarified that the National Longevity List released on the preceding day had listed at least 37 more centenarians than are in fact known to be living. In addition to the woman in Arakawa Ward, the ministry announced that the list of centenarians nationwide had not included information from a revised report filed by the Kitakyūshū municipal government indicating that a tabulation error had resulted in 36 more elderly being listed than have in fact been confirmed.

Subsequently it was learned that another additional person had been listed from Fukushima Prefecture. This led the MHLW to ask all local governments nationwide to confirm the whereabouts of the elderly people listed and reconfirm their number. It became clear as a result that the initial list of 25,606 centenarians included 52 more people than those who had actually been confirmed to be alive. This was said to have resulted from “errors” on the part of the ministry for not including revisions submitted prior to the publication of the National Longevity List by Kitakyūshū as well as Kanagawa Prefecture, and for not removing the names of deceased persons.

The National Longevity List was introduced in 1963, the same year the Act on Social Welfare Service for the Elderly was enacted, with the aim being to celebrate longevity and raise interest in the welfare of the elderly. When the roster was first released, there were only 20 men and 133 women over the age of 100 in Japan. But with the rising average life expectancy in Japan, the number of centenarians had increased to around 1,000 nationwide by 1981 and reached 10,000 by 1998. The 20,000-mark was surpassed in 2003, and by 2009 the number had topped 40,000, doubling in periods of about five years.

As of 2005, in line with the request issued by the MHLW to confirm people’s whereabouts, it became clear that, in addition to the 110-year-old woman in Arakawa Ward, the location of a 110-year-old man supposedly living in Chiba Prefecture could not be confirmed. Even though it had become clear by then that at least two elderly people were missing, the ministry and local governments were too caught up in the careless response to the tabulation error discovered at the time to do anything. On top of this, the National Longevity List was abolished in 2006 for the officially cited reason of safeguarding privacy and personal information. Once the list of the 100 oldest people was no longer released to the public, the problem of the missing elderly faded away.

The MHLW has doubts about whether local governments did in fact confirm, as requested, the whereabouts of those over 107 years of age, who had the possibility of being among the 100 oldest people in Japan according to the National Longevity List. If the local governments had in fact diligently carried out the effort to confirm whereabouts five years ago, it would now in all likelihood be more or less clear whether anyone over 112 years old is in fact missing or not–barring those cases where the person has moved or disappeared. In fact, however, one case after another has emerged of people whose whereabouts were unknown five years ago.

Information Not Reported

The number of centenarians in Japan now known to be missing has reached 290 (as of August 28), according to Kyodo News. The scale of the missing elderly problem is now coming into view, five years after it was first partially glimpsed. The underlying causes are various.

There were cases that fell through the cracks insofar as local governments had the opportunity to realize that people were missing but did not do so as the result of insufficient effort and bureaucratic sectionalism. This was true in the case of the “111-year-old” man in Adachi Ward whose mummified remains were found, which is one of the incidents that brought the problem to the public’s attention.

There were also local governments that were well aware of the existence of elderly people not living where they were registered. In late July, for example, the Kobe municipal government stated that the whereabouts were in fact unknown for 105 of the 847 centenarians listed in its Residential Basic Book, which includes all of the city’s registered residents. The government said that it became aware that those people were not living in Kobe based on investigations carried out by city employees or social workers tasked with delivering “respect for the aged” monetary payments or visiting the centenarians. One of the missing centenarians who had been listed as residing in the city of Kobe would be the oldest person in Japan, at 125, if it could be confirmed that she is still alive. It turns out, however, that the address at which the woman is registered is on the site of a park that opened in 1981, and the municipal government has clarified that it did not include the woman in the report on the most elderly residents submitted to the MHLW because it was not possible to confirm her whereabouts.

An MHLW official who was formerly in charge of the National Longevity List revealed that the investigation of the oldest citizens of Japan was premised in large part on the understanding that there are some people who do not reside at the address where they are registered. It is clear from reading the notice titled “On the Implementation of Investigations Related to Centenarians,” which was distributed to local governments nationwide by the head of the Division of the Support for the Elderly of the ministry’s Health and Welfare Bureau for the Elderly, that a request was made for investigations to take into account the gap between the resident register information and the actual situation.

More specifically, the notice clearly states that local governments should only submit the results of investigations on residents eligible for the commendation from the government for turning 100 within that fiscal year after having not only confirmed documents such as the family register (koseki) and resident register (jūminhyō) but also employed appropriate methods to confirm the living status of the person, such as visiting his or her residence or telephoning. The MHLW had thus requested that local governments not base their confirmations solely on the resident register.

In other words, as the MHLW official pointed out, “The appropriate response would have been for governments to not report on any elderly person whose whereabouts had not been confirmed.” The ministry, which the official described as being surprised to learn that there were still local governments submitting the names of elderly people whose whereabouts had not been confirmed, took the step on August 5 of having the head of the Division of the Support for the Elderly issue the request to local governments that in the future, as a principle, they confirm the whereabouts of the person through an interview. The section head also called for local governments to hand over in person the commemorative silver cups presented to anyone who turns 100 in Japan. In addition, in order “to make absolutely certain that there are no cases of unknown whereabouts in the case of the oldest residents reported on,” as the ministry official said, the local governments were requested to explain the confirmation methods employed, such as whether they had in fact interviewed the elderly person to confirm his or her whereabouts.

Records Diverge from Reality

The MHLW’s efforts, however, remained on the level of making requests. The official from the ministry defended its response, noting that it “lacks the authority needed to rectify the gap between the resident register information and the actual situation, so the only option in the end is to request that local governments provide accurate information.”

How, then, is information on where people (including the elderly) live and whether they are living or dead being handled?

The resident registers, which the recent problem has exposed as diverging from reality, are records under the jurisdiction of municipal governments, in accordance with the Residential Basic Book Act. The jūminhyō resident card issued on the basis of these records is an official document that certifies place of residence and is defined by the MHLW as “official proof of a citizen’s residency.” Municipalities use the jūminhyō as the basis for providing a variety of governmental services, including drawing up lists of eligible voters, regulating who qualifies to enroll in national health or nursing-care insurance and in the national pension system, listing children of school age, and carrying out administrative work related to welfare benefits and immunization.

The revised law stipulates that a person within 14 days of moving to a new residence must submit a form to the municipality in which the new residence is located, even if it is the same municipality the person previously lived in. Municipalities are authorized to issue a penalty exceeding ¥50,000 to anyone who neglects to file the relevant form. But unless the form is actually submitted, the municipality has no way of verifying whether the person is in fact one of its residents.

Information on a person’s death is submitted in accordance with the Family Registration Act. Whereas the jūminhyō is the official proof of residency, the koseki family register is the official proof regarding personal and family information. The koseki, in addition to listing a person’s official domicile, records various dates and information on marital status, along with information on adopted family members, based on the submission of registration forms regarding births and deaths, as well as marriages and divorces.

There are examples of already deceased persons who continue to rack up the years on their jūminhyō, such as the case in Osaka of a “127-year-old” man listed as residing in Nishinari Ward, which had not been notified that the man’s death had been registered in a different ward of the city. Even if such careless responses from local governments play a role, there is no way for them to obtain information unless they receive the relevant forms, just as the case under the Residential Basic Book Act with regard to residents who have moved. The problem of missing elderly people in Japan has starkly revealed the limits of a system based on the submission of forms.

As noted earlier, Kyodo News has stated that as of August 28 there are 290 cases of centenarians whose whereabouts are unknown. And there is the possibility that this number will increase further in the future. But there is also the question of how many people in Japan are either missing or have died without being identified if we include all of those under 100 years of age as well.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced in July that the population in Japan based on the nationwide basic resident registers is 127,057,860 people, as of March 31 of this year. The figure includes whatever “natural increase/decrease” occurred compared to the population based on the basic resident registers of the previous year, according to the forms submitted on births and deaths in accordance with the Family Registration Act, and whatever “social increase/decrease” occurred as a result of movement in and out of the country and the prefectures as well as the deletion of jūminhyō records by the local governments responsible for them. In fiscal 2009, a total of 59,419 names were deleted from jūminhyō rolls. Most of these were cases where investigations conducted by local governments had determined that a person’s whereabouts were unknown. There were under 100,000 such deletions back in 1992, but after that time the number hovered somewhere between 50,000 and 90,000. The missing centenarian problem is an example of people whose names had failed to be deleted.

So what is the actual status of these missing people? A missing persons database compiled from reports filed to police nationwide lists only around 50 centenarians as missing. In Hyōgo Prefecture, for instance, there were over 100 people whose whereabouts were unknown, but a missing person report had only been submitted to the police for 3 people.

When it comes to statistics on deaths, the National Police Agency has data on unidentified deaths. According to the agency, 1,135 reports on unidentified deaths were filed in fiscal 2009, and in around 145 of those cases–or just over 10%–an identification of the body could eventually be made. In the past 10 years, there have been around 1,000 to 1,500 cases of unidentified deaths, and the rate of identification has been just over 10%, which means that every year an additional 1,000 people or so go missing in Japan.

Assuming that nearly all the bodies are found in the cases of isolated deaths of people living alone and the deaths of transients, then it stands to reason that of the roughly 1,000 or so mortalities listed as unidentified dead, there are those whose names were not deleted by local governments and thus seem to be growing older according to their koseki and jūminhyō records. This raises the possibility that the cumulative number of such people is in the tens of thousands if those under 100 years of age are also included.

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