RABBIT RAMBLINGS: The Japanese longevity letdown

Another year passes, and at this point, I wonder how many more years I have left. Sheer longevity seems like an absurd goal, and I am not interested in living to be 100.

I’m told that natto and macha and seaweed will give me health and long life, but I am dubious about these claims, and this business of Japanese people living longer than anyone else is also suspect because of a news article in the New York Times which was entitled “Count Finds Japan’s Tally of Elderly Is Too High.” It starts out like this: “More than 234,000 people listed on government records as age 100 or older are actually missing and probably dead, and in some cases, long dead, the Justice Ministry said.” Poor record keeping was blamed for these statistics, it is claimed, an odd assertion seeing how the Japanese pride themselves on record keeping.

This survey found that about 77,000 missing residents are listed as at least 120 years old, and 884 were on the records as 150 or older. Fantastic! Amazing! It would seem that some Japanese live a lot longer than was thought humanly possible. I guess if no one reports a death, a person is still considered a live individual. Now, what do you suppose is going on? Why did they get around to figuring all this out at this late date?

Well, it seems that somebody finally went to see Sogen Kato, reputed to be Tokyo’s oldest living citizen. What they found was Kato’s mummified body in his bed, dead for at least three decades. It seems that, in the late 1970s, Kato had had a family fight, retired to his bedroom, and never came out. His 81-year-old daughter and his granddaughter were arrested for fraud because they had been cashing his pension checks for all those years. It is suspected that something like this is also the case for many of those hundreds of thousands of centenarians whose whereabouts are no longer certain. Maybe their pensions have been collected by others.

So, down goes another Japanese myth, in the land with the record for longevity. But it certainly raises a lot of questions. What happened to the record collectors? How could they have kept persons 150 years old on their books? And what about all those people who were cashing in on those pensions? How was that possible? Where is the revered notion about the honesty of the Japanese people? I thought that Japanese society was one of the nosiest, most intrusive cultures around, where everybody knew everybody’s business and the local police kept an eye on everybody in their vicinity.

If this story is really true, then I begin to question the conventional wisdom about the high standards that the Japanese have about other aspect of their lives. And actually, I find the whole story to be so amusing that it’s worth turning into a sitcom. Where are all the other missing old people? Actually, what it really does is make the Japanese more like the rest of us — fallible, unreliable, prone to errors — rather than some morally superior culture which thinks of non-Japanese as somehow inferior, less disciplined, less hard working and less honest. It sounds like they have some less than honorable traits themselves, for how do you explain 234,000 missing persons?

Well, this last year has been hard on almost everybody and it doesn’t look like the next year is going to be a great improvement. But then again, at my age, it’s hard to worry about the macro-picture. I’m going to try to savor each day and work more on peace activities and supporting people I consider good leaders. All things considered, there’s a glimmer of hope, and every new year brings a certain sense of renewal in spite of all that has happened. So, happy new year!

Chizu Omori is the co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” A recent resident of Seattle, she now writes from San Francisco, Calif. and can be reached by e-mail at chizuomor@earthlink.net.

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