The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Japan sets a new record number for people over 100 years old — and almost all are women

A woman walks past a lottery store in Tokyo's Tama City on Aug. 28. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg News)

In mid-July, the Japanese government announced that Chiyo Miyako, the oldest person in the world, had died at 117. Her title would probably not have to travel far: Another Japanese woman, 115-year-old Kane Tanaka, was expected to become the oldest woman in the world in her place.

New information released by the Japanese Health Ministry suggests that there may be more Japanese women who take the record in the future. The ministry announced Friday that the number of Japanese citizens who were older than 100 had risen to reach 69,785. Of that number, more than 88 percent are women.

The figure is an increase of more than 2,000 centenarians from 2017 and a dramatic increase from 1965, when Japan first started collecting data on those who had lived past 100. Back then, there were 153.

Japan celebrates the lives of its centenarians. Monday will be a public holiday known as the Respect for the Aged Day, when those who have reached the 100-year mark receive a letter of congratulations from the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and a commemorative sake cup.

Their growing numbers are evidence that Japan is a rapidly aging society. The median age of the country is 47.3, according to U.S. government figures. That makes it the second oldest country in the world, after Monaco; with low birthrates leading to a shrinking population, that figure is likely to rise in the future.

With Japan’s public debt at 236 percent of gross domestic product, there are concerns about the economic burden that this rapidly aging society will place on Japan. Many expect the elderly to suffer under budget cuts in the future, with pension benefits further delayed to age 68. There are concerns that many elderly are falling into poverty, with women particularly vulnerable as they struggle to find work.

Under Abe, the Japanese government has pushed the idea of a “100-year-life” where the elderly would continue to contribute to society. “Being 70 years old today is like reaching one’s 60s or 50s in the past," the prime minister said at an event last year. "I myself will turn 63 this year, but I still feel like I am 52 or 53.”

Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has estimated that the number of centenarians will grow as the country’s broader population shrinks, potentially reaching 170,000 in a decade, according to Kyodo News.

Although the United States has a slightly higher number overall, 2015 research from Pew found that it had 2.2 centenarians per 10,000 people while Japan had 4.8 per 10,000. Studies have suggested that a Japanese diet and efforts to keep the elderly active in later life keep people living longer in the country.

More on WorldViews:

After a life filled with sushi and calligraphy, world’s oldest person dies at 117