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Masaharu, a homeless man living in Tokyo's Ueno Park, says: ‘I’ll be here until I die.’ (Kayo Yamawaki/Kayo Yamawaki for The Globe and Mail)
Masaharu, a homeless man living in Tokyo's Ueno Park, says: ‘I’ll be here until I die.’ (Kayo Yamawaki/Kayo Yamawaki for The Globe and Mail)

Japanese living longer, lonelier Add to ...

First came the grisly discovery this summer that Tokyo's oldest man, 111-year-old Sogen Kato, was in fact one of the city's best-preserved mummies, having taken his last breath 32 years ago. He still lay in the bed where he died back in 1978, and his family had been collecting his pension cheques since that time.

A week later, the city's police admitted they couldn't find the city's oldest woman, Fusa Furuya, either. Though documents showed she was 113 years old, her step-granddaughter admitted she hadn't seen her relative in more than two decades. Ms. Furuya's last recorded address turned out to be a vacant lot.

The discoveries about Mr. Kato and Ms. Furuya prompted a nationwide effort to track down the country's centenarians, which turned up more depressing news: a list of 234,354 names of people older than 100 that police couldn't confirm were actually alive.

The mystery was attributed in part to shoddy record-keeping - more than 77,000 of those declared missing would have been more than 120 years old if they were indeed still alive, and some are believed to have died as long ago as the Second World War - but the findings also point to a sad new reality in this rapidly aging country: many Japanese are now growing old, and dying, alone.

There was shock in the country's media. "Die alone and in two months all that is left is the stench, a rotting corpse and maggots," read one angry article in the Japan Times newspaper. But there was less surprise at the Tokyo Koto Geriatric Medical Centre, where Miyoji Aiba said the news only confirmed a pattern he had been seeing with his patients for years. Despite a culture that places heavy emphasis on respect for the elderly, many Japanese seniors now live in solitude, estranged from or ignored by their families.

"Some patients come in with their families, but many are alone or come in just with their social workers," Dr. Aiba says. "It happens especially in Tokyo. There are more and more single-person families."

Indeed, a 2005 national census found that 3.86 million elderly were living alone, up from 2.2 million a decade earlier. A more recent government survey found that 24.4 per cent of men and 9.3 per cent of women over the age of 60 had no neighbours, friends or relatives they felt they could rely on in difficult times.

In what appears to be a collective cry for help, more than 30,000 Japanese seniors are arrested every year for shoplifting. Many of those arrested told police they stole out of feelings of boredom and isolation, rather than any economic necessity.

Dr. Aiba says part of the reason for the decline in senior citizens' standard of living lies in one the country's successes: Japanese are living longer than ever before (the average lifespan is 79.6 years for men and 86.4 for women, though the missing centenarians obviously inflated those figures). That achievement is placing new burdens on a society where a declining number of working-age Japanese have to fund rising health-care and pension costs.

And where Japanese families traditionally lived with three generations under the same roof, that has become less common in the country's crowded cities, especially as seniors now often live long enough to see their great-grandchildren. "There's not enough space for families to live together any more," Dr. Aiba says.

Police investigators looking for the missing seniors found the same phenomenon: Many of those who had disappeared had moved away from their family homes - divorce among the elderly is also on the rise - and were never heard from again. Dementia, which afflicts more than two million Japanese, is also a contributing factor.

In the eyes of many, the disheartening plight of Japan's elderly is symptomatic of the country's wider woes. A country that is growing poorer, on a per capita basis, as it grows older is seeing its once-vaunted social security apparatus crumble just as it will be needed most.

Japan is already the second-oldest society in the world, and its fastest aging. The government expects that within five years, more than a quarter of its 127 million citizens will be 65 or older. While the country introduced a nursing-care system in 2000 that covers 90 per cent of costs, most seniors are eligible to receive only five hours of care a day, putting the expectation on relatives to provide care the rest of the day.

Many of those gone missing are men who left their hometowns to look for work in Japan's big cities during the country's pre-1990s boom years. Many of them worked obsessively long hours and never built a social network in their new homes. Others found less economic success than they'd hoped. Ashamed of that failure, they didn't feel they could return home.

The phenomenon is plainest as evening falls in Tokyo's Ueno Park, where hundreds of homeless, nearly all of them older men, bed down each night. They've become accustomed to seeing old age thin their numbers as time passes.

"I miss my family. I want to go back to them, but when I see them I feel I can't be honest about this," says 61-year-old Masaharu, who has been sleeping in Ueno Park since he lost his job as a truck driver five years ago. "I'll be here until I die."

Masaharu, who refused to give his family name, said many of the park's residents are substantially older than he is. They die off with little ceremony, he says. "Sometimes they contact the family. But sometimes they're not registered, so no one knows who they were or where they came from."

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