The Justice Ministry announced this month that it can’t confirm the whereabouts of 230,000 centenarians listed in “koseki” family registers.

Last month, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimated that pensions were being paid out to some 800 missing people aged 85 or older.

The nationwide search for the missing elderly began when a mummified corpse was found at a home in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, in July. The man, Sogen Kato, would have been 111 years old.

It turned out that members of his family had allegedly been collecting his pension for about 30 years. In all, about ¥18 million was transferred to Kato’s bank account.

Why did local governments fail to track the whereabouts of the elderly, and how is it even possible for a dead person to get a pension?

Following are some questions and answers on the issue of the missing centenarians:

Do the central or local governments regularly check on the whereabouts of the elderly?

Not really. Every September, the health ministry sends a gift to anyone who turns 100 that fiscal year, from April to March. A ministry official in the division supporting the elderly said they ask a local government official to deliver the gift in person.

In light of recent revelations of missing centenarians, Akira Nagatsuma, who until last week was health minister, emphasized the importance of these personal visits.

Nevertheless, it’s no simple matter to set up these meetings with centenarians. According to the ministry, of the 23,269 people turning 100 this year, local government staff met only 35 percent in person.

Some municipal governments offer gifts or coupons to the elderly, but not necessarily every year, nor do they meet the elderly in person.

To check on the status of elderly people living alone, municipal governments depend heavily on welfare commissions. But the members of these commissions also have limited access to the elderly because some refuse to meet the volunteers or a relative turns them away.

How does the government determine if a pension recipient is still alive?

Before 2006, pension recipients were required to send in a form to their local government every year with their address and name to prove they were still living in the district, according to Japan Pension Service.

Since then, local governments only check the resident register, which contains the current address, name, birth date and sex.

How does the resident register differ from the family register?

“Jyumin toroku,” the resident register, covers the district a person resides in. It records a person’s address, name, birth date and sex, and when a person moves to a new address they are required to transfer their registration.

These records are made by household; therefore, people living on their own, whether they are a student or an adult, has his or her own registration record.

This data is used to provide public services such as the national pension, nursing care insurance and voter registration.

On the other hand, “koseki,” or the family register, is the record of a family and their legal domicile. If a person gets married, his or her name is removed from the family register and put into a new register along with their spouse. Unlike jyumin toroku, koseki is not used as a basis for providing public services.

Why were some relatives of the missing elderly able to receive pensions?

If no notice of death is submitted, the elderly person is considered alive. Therefore, if the person’s name is still listed in the resident register and if the person’s bank account remains unchanged, the pension will continue to be paid, according to the health ministry’s pension division.

Is it possible to delete a registration without a death notice?

Yes, if local governments are certain a person is dead or has been missing for some years. The Justice Ministry recently instructed its regional legal affairs bureaus to remove from family registers those who would be 120 or older and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Japan is known for the longevity of its populace. Do the missing centenarians affect the average life span?

No, according to the statistics division of the health ministry. Average life expectancy is calculated based on the national census conducted every five years. National census staff visit every household across the nation to hand out questionnaires in person to the head of the family. Those who live alone away from their legal residence also have to answer the survey. An official said they even survey homeless people.

Resident and family registers are not used to calculate the average life span, and men aged 98 or older and women aged 103 or older are not included in the calculation data, the ministry says.

Is the health ministry taking any steps to prevent pension fraud?

Yes. The ministry decided last month to stop pension payouts from October for people aged 76 or older who have not used their medical insurance for a year and whose whereabouts are unconfirmed.

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