Japan's centenarian mystery

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Japan officially has the world's largest number of people over the age of 100. But a recent series of grisly discoveries has put that exact number in doubt. Correspondent Akiko Fujita reports from Tokyo on what's happening to Japan's centenarians.

MARCO WERMAN: Japan has launched a nationwide search for missing centenarians. The country officially has the world's largest number of people over the age of 100. But several grisly discoveries have cast doubt on the accuracy of that 100-plus-year-old population. Just Friday, police found the remains of a 104-year-old Tokyo woman. They said her son had stuffed those remains in a backpack for nearly a decade. Akiko Fujita reports from Tokyo.

AKIKO FUJITA : The search for Japan's missing centenarians began here in Tokyo's Adachi Ward. Last month social workers visited the home of a 111-year-old who was supposed to be the city's oldest living man. But when they entered his bedroom workers found Sogen Kato's mummified corpse. Near his body they found newspapers that suggested he'd been dead for 30 years.


FUJITA: That's [PH] Aki Animoto, the director of the ward's elderly services division. He says his office began checking in a couple years ago when they learned he would become one of Tokyo's oldest centenarians. But they didn't actually check in with him. Kato's son told social workers his father wanted to be left alone. Animoto says I honestly believed the man wanted to live in isolation. Police discovered that Kato's family collected more than a $110,000 in Kato's widower pension money since his wife died. They also accepted gifts the ward gave to celebrate his longevity. Shortly after the Kato discovery another Tokyo ward announced that the city's oldest woman was missing.


FUJITA: Animoto says we never expected so many centenarians to go missing. I never imagined our ward's discovery would lead to this. Since word of the deceased centenarians broke nearly 280 more have been reported missing. Overall Japan has more than 40,000 Japanese citizens over the age of 100 and they number's expected to climb as Japan's population continues to gray. [SOUNDS LIKE] Ryuichi Kaneko is a director at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. He says the scandal highlights Japan's inability to keep track of its elderly.


FUJITA: Kaneko says so many elderly are falling through the cracks because Japan's using an outdated system that was designed to keep tabs on a smaller number of people. Japan doesn't have a national identification system like Social Security in the United States. The Japanese are required to register personal information with their local government. The government uses that local registry to process paperwork for health insurance, taxes, census reports and death certificates. The problem is that death goes unnoticed unless a family member reports it. And in some of the missing elderly cases, family members didn't report deaths so they could continue collecting pensions. In other cases, family members didn't even know their loved ones had passed away because they hadn't spoken in years.


FUJITA: Kaneko says these problems also shed light on a change in family structure. The Japanese used to pride themselves on looking after their elderly relatives. Now they'd rather live separate lives. All of this comes as the Japanese get ready to mark a national holiday next month, Respect for the Elderly Day. Local governments traditionally send gift certificates to their oldest residents, but his year Aki Animoto says his ward has opted to distribute the gifts in person. Since the gruesome discovery last month, Animoto sent hundreds of volunteers door knocking to confirm where his elderly live and that they are still alive. He's updated the local registry. He's even gotten approval to look into nursing care insurance records so he knows exactly who's using it. Animator now knows where 181 centenarians in the community are living. But he says one, a 103 year old, is still missing. For The World, I'm Akiko Fujita in Tokyo.