Unaccounted-for seniors spark pension fraud fears
TOKYO: What began as a search for Tokyo's oldest man and woman has turned into a case of Japan's missing centenarians.
Worse, it is raising suspicions that some families may have deliberately covered up the deaths of their elderly relatives in order to continue taking their pension money from the government.
Ahead of a national holiday to honour the elderly next month, Tokyo officials looking for a man listed as the city's oldest at 111 years found that he likely died more than 30 years ago.
The discovery of his mummified remains last week prompted them to look for Madam Fusa Furuya, listed as the city's oldest woman, but she too could not be found at the address where she was registered.
The disappearances kicked off a frantic search for other listed centenarians, with media reports yesterday saying that at least a dozen more are missing.
Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Akira Nagatsuma on Tuesday pledged that the government would check on the elderly 'to confirm where and in what circumstances they are living', the Yomiuri Shimbun said.
Japan, known for its world-beating life expectancies, had 40,399 people aged 100 or older as of September last year.
Newspapers have started their own national headcounts, with the Asahi Shimbun identifying 12 centenarians who are missing, the Yomiuri Shimbun naming 15, and the Mainichi Shimbun reporting 18.
Just in Tokyo, where about 2,500 centenarians are registered, the whereabouts of nine people aged 102 or more are unknown, reports said.
The media frenzy started last week after a visit by ward officials to the home of Mr Sogen Kato, which led to a police search that found his three-decades-old skeleton on his bed, in a room where the latest newspaper was from 1978.
Police are now investigating his relatives - who claimed he had retreated to his room to become 'a living Buddha' - for fraud because the government had been paying a pension into the man's bank account.
A total of 9.5 million yen (S$149,200) in widower's pension payments had been deposited since his wife died six years ago, and some of the money had been withdrawn only recently, reports said.
In the case of Madam Furuya, who would be 113 years old if alive, her estranged 79-year-old daughter told officials she believed her mother was with her younger brother, with whom she claimed to have lost touch.
But the address she gave officials turned out to be of an empty plot of land in Ichikawa city, near Tokyo.
When officials located the 71-year-old son in Tokyo, he said he did not know where his mother was, the Asahi Shimbun reported yesterday.
Another daughter, when contacted by officials over the phone, said: 'I do not know where my mother lives. I don't want to become involved in this matter.'
The Japanese are now asking how the system can allow people to vanish, apparently without anyone noticing.
The government leaves it up to local communities and independent health-care bodies to check on centenarians, and methods differ from one municipality to another, said a Health Ministry official.
'In a small town, it's easier to check on the safety of centenarians by visiting them. But in a larger city, officials may just give a quick telephone call to family members,' the official said.
In Tokyo, ward offices said it can be difficult to check on the elderly because relatives sometimes refuse to cooperate and prevent welfare workers from entering homes, according to a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The cases are raising concerns about the government's ability to effectively monitor the whereabouts and well-being of the elderly in Japan, and to ensure that the national pension system is not abused.
In 2007, the government came under fire after the Welfare Ministry lost millions of pension-related files, stirring outrage that people might not receive payments they were due. The latest record-keeping mishaps turn the problem on its head, allowing the deceased to continue receiving pension payments.
The cases also highlight a growing trend in which many children hole up in their parents' homes well into adulthood - often without working - a cohort unkindly dubbed 'parasaito' in Japan.
Said Shukutoku University's Professor Yasuhiro Yuuki, an expert on social welfare: 'Depending on their parents' pension plan, the children can get quite a lot of money, or enough to survive on. Children say they are taking care of their parents, but actually they are just using their pensions.'
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, XINHUA
# Between 12 and 18 are unaccounted for nationwide, according to Japanese dailies.
# Nine missing in Tokyo alone
# Japan officially has 40,399 centenarians as of last September.
# About 2,500 of them are registered in Tokyo.
[If this is prevalent, then 2 things - one Japan's life expectancy is not as high as it should be, and 2, their society is not as aged. But only slightly. Unless, it is really prevalent.]