Japan's not the country you think it is

The steretypical Japanese is an honest, orderly soul who reveres their elders. Turns out that's not quite true. And if that's not true, what else isn't?

Is Japan what you think it is? Not if recent events in Tokyo's Aichi ward are anything to go by. Here we are in the West, thinking of Japan as a place where the old are endlessly revered, where families live in intergenerational harmony and where an astonishingly healthy lifestyle has created a generation of people living almost biblical lifespans.

Turns out none of this is quite true. When officials popped into see Sogen Kato, a man they thought was Tokyo's oldest resident, with a view to congratulating him on his longevity, they found, after what Leo Lewis in The Times calls "a bit of doorstep argy-bargy", that he had been dead for 30 years.

"Soon a ghastly truth dawned." Not only had Kato's family pocketed an estimated £70,000 of pension benefits by keeping him mummified in an upstairs room, but they weren't the only ones. Japan has or had 41,000 centenarians. But a quick check by officials found that in Osaka alone more than 5,100 of them are 'missing' (read long dead) while the man thought to be the oldest man on the planet in fact died back in the 1960s.

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You might think that all this is, while nasty, not that big a deal. After all, while keeping your old dad's bones knocking about upstairs for 30 years in order to pick up his allowances is a little odder than doing as the British do and hanging on to their grannies' disabled parking permits for as long as they can get away with it post funeral, the sentiment is the same. And, a bit of free riding aside, the damage is not that great (assuming all the dead died of natural causes of course).

But in some ways it is a big deal. Why? Because it reminds us just how hard up many Japanese families still are after 20 years of low growth (it can't be easy to keep skeletons at home decade after decade). And because it throws doubt on the trustworthiness of Japan's official records.

If we don't know how many 100 year-olds there are, do we have any idea how many 70-90 year olds there are? Or for that matter what Japan's total OAP population is, given that -according to the BBC -over 200,000 old people are 'missing?' If we take off all the 'probably dead' people, is one in five Japanese people really over 65? And if we don't know that, then how accurate are our ideas of Japan's GDP per head, or the real burden on the public finances represented by the country's apparently aging population?

And if the Japanese can't keep track of a few thousand more or less immobile centarians, then how can we know that any of the other numbers they produce are any good either?

The Japanese like to think of themselves as being uniquely surrounded by "precision honesty and orderliness" says Lewis. But the truth as demonstrated by the missing old people saga is that when it comes to bureaucracy they live in a tangle of make do-ery, cover up and semi fraud. Just like the rest of us.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.