The number of living people who witnessed the 19th century has dwindled to four after Misao Okawa, the world’s oldest person, died in Japan at the age of 117.
Okawa passed away early on Wednesday morning at a nursing home in Osaka. She was not terribly impressed by her long life. “It seemed short to me,” she told a local newspaper on her 116th birthday.
Only four living people born before 1900 remain, according to the US-based Gerontology Research Group. The planet’s most senior citizen is now 116-year-old Gertrude Weaver, who lives in Arkansas.
The previous record holder was also Japanese, and Okawa’s death highlights the long life expectancy and explosive ageing of Japan’s population, with the number of centenarians forecast to rise more than threefold over the next 15 years.
By 2050, Japan is projected to have more than 600,000 people over 100 years of age — far more than the US, with the next biggest cohort of centenarians, despite a much smaller population.
When Okawa was born in 1898, the fourth daughter of a family who ran a kimono store, Japan was a poor, but rapidly developing country that had just begun to emerge on the global stage.
The Russo-Japanese war began when she was six and she lived through both world wars. Okawa had three children but in an illustration of Japan’s demographic trends, only four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1931, when she was 33.
Japan’s life expectancy is 84 years at birth, the longest in the world, according to the World Health Organisation.
That is often attributed to the country’s traditional low-fat, fish-based diet — but Okawa drank coffee and ate whatever she felt like. Asked for the secret of her longevity, she said: “Eat tasty food and sleep well.”
The longevity of its citizens, combined with a slump in the fertility rate to well below replacement levels starting from the early 1970s, means Japan has the most rapidly ageing population on earth. The fertility rate is currently 1.41 births per woman.
That is posing serious policy and economic challenges, as the working-age population declines and the elderly population soars. Japan’s health-care costs are expected to accelerate after 2020, as the postwar baby boom generation turns 75 and starts to suffer more chronic illness.
According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan had 67,000 centenarians in 2014, but that number is forecast to reach 110,000 in 2020, 253,000 in 2030 and peak at 703,000 in the year 2051.
The comparable forecasts from the US Census Bureau are for 89,000 centenarians in 2020, 138,000 in 2030 and 404,000 in 2051.
Whatever the economic and social cost of its ageing population, therefore, Japan is likely to remain competitive in at least one international ranking: for much of the 21st century, Okawa’s successor will be Japanese.