The Justice Ministry announced Friday that the existence of 234,354 centenarians listed as “alive” in family registries can’t be confirmed.

The finding was reached after the ministry decided to carry out a nationwide survey on centenarians to get to the bottom of a growing pension fraud scandal that could challenge Japan’s long-engrained reputation for longevity.

If alive, 77,118 of them would be 120 years old or older and 884 would be at least 150, tracing their origins to the Edo Period. That’s a lot bigger than the 800 or so elderly listed as 85 or older who the welfare ministry said last month might be illegally receiving pension money.

Tokyo tallied the most missing centenarian cases with 22,877, while Osaka, Hyogo, Fukuoka and Okinawa prefectures found that more than 10,000 centenarians couldn’t be found at their listed addresses.

The ministry theorized that many of these people probably died during the war, in the turmoil that followed or after emigrating, and that their death notices were never submitted.

The survey was conducted in late August by tracing some 47 million family registries — or about 90 percent of all registries on record as of March — after media reports that mummified elderly people are still drawing pension checks revealed that the government has no idea how many of the nation’s centenarians are actually alive.

It appears the discrepancy is being created by local governments’ dependence on the resident registration system, which keeps track of the people listed as living in a certain area, such as a city or ward. Residents are supposed to notify their local governments when they are moving and reregister once they settle down in a new area.

The Justice Ministry, however, relies on the family registration system, which keeps track of a family’s details, including number of relatives, ages and dates and locations of birth.

Unless the local and central governments determine who is living where, or whether they are alive at all, phantom payouts for pensions and health insurance will likely continue.

Meanwhile, the ministry has instructed its regional legal affairs bureaus to delete family registries for people who would be 120 years old or older if an address is not listed. At the moment, a family registry can’t be deleted without a death notice or a family notice stating the relevant person is missing.

The missing centenarian problem appears to have its roots in lack of periodic followup, failure or refusal to submit death notices, and slack record-keeping. Last month, Yamaguchi Prefecture discovered that the registry indicated one of its residents was alive and well at 186 years old.

Commenting on the Justice Ministry’s findings, health minister Akira Nagatsuma said Friday the government must find a way to track down the elderly. He also said that community spirit is breaking down nationwide and that families appear to be straying from tradition.

“The safety net that was once provided (by families, communities and companies) has begun to fall apart,” he said without elaborating.

The health ministry decided last month to end pension payouts in October for people 76 or older who haven’t used their medical insurance for one year and can’t be located.

Nagatsuma said the ministry hopes to share information with local governments on such people and stressed that it is illegal not to submit a death notice. The maximum fine is usually about ¥50,000.

Relatives of missing centenarians are being arrested on suspicion of fraud for claiming the pension benefits paid to deceased relatives by failing to notify local governments of the relatives’ deaths.

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