The Japanese media are currently obsessed with the notion of old people disappearing from the face of the Earth without anyone knowing about it, including loved ones.

The whole thing started when a public welfare worker in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward became suspicious of a family who were being cagey about the whereabouts of a 111-year-old member. The volunteer reported her suspicions to the ward office, who visited the family and demanded to meet the centenarian. They discovered a mummified corpse occupying a room with stacks of old newspapers that indicated the body had been there for 30 years.

The macabre novelty was irresistible, and it has led to a never-ending stream of reports from other local governments that can’t find their over-100s, though records indicate those people exist.

When families of some of these vanished seniors are quizzed by the press, they often say they haven’t seen them for years, and the reaction has turned from dark titillation to hand-wringing. What happened to filial piety and Japan’s storied sense of community? Why are old people allowed to wander off into the ether? This isn’t medieval Japan, where they were hauled off to mountaintops and left to die.

If there’s a problem it’s bureaucratic, because what we’re talking about is record-keeping. Local governments have known for years about “evaporating” old people. Last year alone, more than 11,000 people over the age of 70 were reported missing, but the media never seemed concerned about it.

The bigger problem that already overburdened welfare workers face is the ever-increasing portion of senior citizens who live alone and die that way, often without anybody discovering their bodies for weeks. These people are not “missing” as far as the authorities are concerned, and in many cases, since they have lost contact with their families — sometimes by choice — welfare workers are the only links they have to the wider world.

The focus on missing centenarians overlooks this point, since they make up such a small portion of old people and common sense says that most of them probably died a long time ago. So far this year, at least 70 people have been found dead who cannot be identified. In the past 25 years, the number of unidentified dead adds up to more than 16,000. The focus on these few cases sidesteps the real problem, which is that older people in general don’t receive the care and attention they need from the authorities.

Instead the media focus on the belief that families should be providing care and attention. This belief springs from the myth of the close-knit extended family, which has been perpetuated by the bureaucratic process. Japanese families are defined and delineated by the koseki (family register) and juminhyo (resident registration) systems. These documents designate intra-family relationships and imply responsibilities. They are also the basis for public services, and are designed to compel families to police their own, which is why several cases have involved what sounds like public pension fraud.

In the Adachi case, it turns out that the deceased had been “collecting” a widower’s pension ever since his wife died six years ago. As with all residents over a certain age, the office sent an annual postcard to confirm his existence and it was always returned with the proper information filled in, so payments continued.

The person receiving a pension does not have to fill out the card. Since 1997, the health ministry has not even required the person’s hanko (personal seal). It’s assumed a family member can and will fill it out, because that’s what the system encourages. As a ministry official told the weekly Aera, a family member can act as a proxy for a pension-holder in receiving and even spending the funds. “If they do that,” the official says, “it’s assumed they are doing it with (the pension-holder’s) permission. A pension is considered a common family asset.”

But what if the pension-holder no longer exists? Isn’t that fraud?

“We believe these (missing) people are receiving their pensions because we have no confirmation of death,” the official says, “but we have no way of knowing for sure. All we can say is that we believe human nature is basically good.”

That’s nice, but hardly realistic. For one thing, bureaucrats are territorial, and local governments charged with overseeing pension distribution have no stake in the matter — it’s not their money.

The law assumes that the family forms the bedrock of human society, but families are as varied and mutable as the stars, as shown by one case of a missing centenarian in Nagano Prefecture also reported by Aera.

A 74-year-old man says he has not seen his father, supposedly the oldest person in the prefecture, “for a long time,” though he has been receiving his father’s pension payments. Pressed by welfare workers and reporters, he tells a confused story of the man who adopted him as an adult and after his wife died went to live with “his mistress” in another prefecture some 40 years ago. The man was obviously adopted for mutual convenience — the parents didn’t have children of their own, and he could inherit their property. He was never close to his father, but the reporter tries to make him feel guilty about not trying to locate him. As for receiving the pension, he lives on his father’s land and used the money to pay property taxes. Nobody told him he couldn’t.

The media’s shock is disingenuous because they’ve been reporting for years that more and more households consist of lone, elderly individuals. What they can’t understand is that some of these people may actually prefer it that way. By giving lip service to the myth of the close-knit family, the media compounds the authorities’ irresponsibility.

Comedian Beat Takeshi, after watching a report on TBS’s “Newscaster,” proposed setting up a “talent agency” of old folks who could pose as retirees so that families without them could collect pensions and other benefits. It’s cynical, certainly, but just as realistic as the conviction that everybody wants to be stuck with their “loved ones” forever.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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