Misleading with statistics
2010 saw a social security scandal in Japan comparable to problems concerning the solvency of the old age social security net in other countries. There is a solvency concern in Japan as well, but the shocking revelation this year was the admission by the government that it lost or misplaced old age pension records for many thousands of people - citizens who now have no paper work to prove that they paid into the mandatory pension scheme and are now, or soon to be eligible for a old age pension. What a whopping omission!
Then in August came an admission by city governments that they could not verify all the centenarians presumed to be living within their jurisdiction. Where were the missing elderly? Japanprides itself on its world-record-holding life expectancy for women and men, and for its record number of centenarians as proof of the quality not just of its socialized health care, old age and social welfare programs, but even of its traditional diet and lifestyle. It is a fast graying society that boasts 40,000 centenarians. They’re very proud of that figure. But this year it suddenly came to light that at least some of the elderly who are still registered as residents with city offices do not exist. There are loopholes in the census and in the manner of distributing pensions and welfare to qualified recipients.
A nationwide probe of elderly welfare programs was launched after the discovery in Tokyoof the mummified corpse of a man who was still listed as alive on his local residency register, which listed him at 111-years old. It is believed that he died thirty years ago after retreating to his bedroom and refusing to come out. His family did not report his death and continued receiving benefits. (In fact, for Japanese people it is not beyond
credible that the family never opened the elderly man’s bedroom door to check on him, out of some kind of respect for his stated wish to retreat from the world and become a “living Buddha.”)
Searches of other city records turned up many dozens of ‘missing’ centenarians presumed to be alivebut who haven’t been seen or heard from - except through family intermediaries - for years. Incredibly, records emerged of elderly people still on community residency registers who would range in age from 125-150 years if they were alive. More than one name was discovered of people who would have been 200-years old if alive. One elderly man was discovered to have been keeping the bones of his centenarian mother in a knapsack in a closet, claiming that after she died he could not afford a funeral. (Well, okay, that is believable, but really!) Suggestions were made that city workers visit and visually confirm the existence of all centenarians in their areas.
Then in September it was admitted that not only hundreds of centenarians, but also up to 234,000 senior citizens from age 65 were unaccounted for! Calculate that over-count of the citizenry into the total statistics and it represents a significant drop in the country’s population.
Statistics in which the nation takes great pride are prone to tweaking.
Blaming the relatives of centenarians for exploiting the current social welfare system and defrauding the government by failing to report elderly family members’ deaths and then continuing to collect benefits meant for their care, or blaming the welfare system itself for being too prone to such abuse and sloppy bureaucrats, too (“Centenarian probe: 200 not at home” in The Japan Times, August 13, 2010) may be correct arguments. But they also look like decoys to me because numbers are not universal constants, and each culture imagines, collects and uses statistics in its own manner to verify its own world view.
Giddy with its success in the boom years of the 1960s, 70s and 80s when all the indicators were flush with positive figures - Gross Domestic Product; life expectancy; schooling and literacy; infrastructure; industrial output and exports; employment; trade surpluses; foreign currency reserves; savings rates; infant mortality; public health; international travel, etc.
Japanese numeracy and statistics data were nevertheless captives of a culture that rates appearance and form above reality and substance. So it is not surprising now to learn - at least in the case of centenarians - that no one actually checked to see if the numbers were true. Statistics in which the nation takes great pride are rather prone to tweaking, don’t you think? And, does it make us worry about what else is amiss? Probably not, but forfty percent of surveyed people think it ought to, and currently fiveteen percent of people express morbid distrust of government statistics as a whole.
I feel fairly confident that similar anomalies must occur in Canada and other advanced countries as well. And, I think it deserves deeper reflection, at least as an epistemology exercise, as it is a sign of how what we think we know is wrong, even when we have numbers to prove it. Personally, I pretty much habitually take it for granted that everything we think we know is, in fact, wrong in some way. So news - surprising, shocking and bad - does not disappoint me so much as entertain me. But I could be wrong.