It all began last week when a mummified corpse was found at a house in Adachi Ward, Tokyo. If the man, Sogen Kato, were still alive he would have been 111 years old.

His family reportedly said he locked himself in a room about 30 years ago and never came out. An investigation was launched to determine if his relatives were receiving his pension illegally.

Then came the case of Fusa Furuya in Suginami Ward, who at 113 was registered as the oldest woman in the Tokyo metropolitan area but turned out to be missing. Her daughter reportedly said she has no idea where her mother might be, although registering her as sharing the same address in 1986.

Now local governments are scurrying to find out whether other registered residents who would be centenarians today are in fact still alive, after Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Akira Nagatsuma announced Tuesday the launch of a nationwide investigation into pension recipients who would be 110 or older.

“The government basically continues providing pensions unless they receive a death notification,” an official in the welfare ministry’s pension division said. “It’s common sense to submit a death certificate.”

The government official said whether pension recipients are still living has not been tracked, but before 2006 recipients had to submit a certificate to their local government to prove they are alive.

Municipal officials say they’ve been trying to keep track of elderly residents, but it isn’t easy.

“Some people refuse (to meet face to face). If these people have no connection with their neighbors, it is difficult to know (whether they are alive),” said an official in the Kita Ward, Tokyo, health and welfare division. The ward has apparently confirmed 93 centenarians are still alive, but a man who would be 105 is unaccounted for.

The ward official said before it gives seniors gifts to commemorate their longevity, it sends a query to ascertain their status.

Local welfare commissioners visit their registered address when these questions are not returned, she said.

Toshima Ward has confirmed the whereabouts of all 141 of its centenarian residents, according to Hiroaki Hoshino, director of the ward’s health and welfare division.

From the beginning of this year, the ward began checking on the whereabouts of residents aged over 65. For those between 65 and 75, it sends a survey sheet for the resident to fill out and send back. For people over 75, ward welfare commissioners visit their residences.

“But there might be some cases in which the commissioners can’t meet them. If so, we have to think about visiting the residents several times or take other measures,” Hoshino said, adding there is no specific plan for that eventuality yet.

To regularly check on how the elderly, mostly those living alone, are doing, municipal governments depend heavily on welfare commissioners.

But these volunteers have limited access to the elderly because there’s nothing they can do if someone refuses to meet them or kin turn them away, according to the Federation of Minseiiin Jidoiin Community Child Welfare Volunteers.

After the Personal Information Protection Law went into effect in April 2005, it has gotten more difficult for welfare commissioners to obtain information about residents in their assigned area, a federation member said.

“For example, information about a centenarian’s address is private. Although local governments have all this information, some don’t pass it on to welfare commissioners,” he said.

The city of Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, has been asking for a helping hand from “Yakult ladies,” who distribute the drink to homes.

Since 1979, they have been knocking five days a week on the doors of people aged 65 and older who live alone and giving them a drink subsidized by the city, according to director Junko Akino of the city’s welfare division.

“It’s not just about making sure they’re alive. It’s also about communicating with them and keeping them from becoming isolated (from the community),” Akino said. Keeping an eye on the elderly is important, she said, and the project is funded through this year. However, it drew criticism during the budget-screening process and the city may have to cancel it next year.

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