Hooray: World’s oldest person celebrates 119th birthday in Japan nursing home

Photograph: KYODO/ReutersKane Tanaka

The world’s oldest person has celebrated her 119th birthday in Japan, saying she is determined to extend the record by another year.

Kane Tanaka, who has a weakness for fizzy drinks and chocolate, marked the milestone on Sunday with staff at the nursing home where she lives in Fukuoka prefecture, south-west Japan, according to media reports.

The Guinness Book of Records recognized Tanaka’s status in March 2019, when she was 116; she went on to achieve an all-time Japanese age record when she reached 117 years and 261 days in September 2020.

Born in 1903 – the year the Wright brothers made their first powered flight and the first Tour de France was held – Tanaka has lived through five Japanese imperial reigns and has set her sights on reaching her 120th birthday, the Kyodo news agency quoted family members as saying. Tanaka, who was born six months before George Orwell, is one of a large and growing number of Japanese centenarians.

In an estimate released in September ahead of the annual Respect for the Aged Day, the health ministry said a record 86,510 people were aged 100 or older, an increase of 6,060 from the previous year. Women make up the vast majority of centenarians, with men accounting for just over 10,000, the ministry said.

When the annual survey was first conducted in 1963, Japan had just 153 centenarians, but the number had soared to over 10,000 by 1998. Life expectancy in Japan, one of the fastest-ageing societies on earth, is also at a record high, at 87.74 for women and 81.64 for men.

The number of young people is shrinking, however, amid failed attempts to raise the country’s low birth rate. Government figures showed that 1.2 million people saw in the New Year as new adults – those who had turned 20 – a drop of 40,000 from last year and the lowest number since records were first kept in 1968.

Twenty-year-olds have accounted for less than 1% of the country’s population for the past 12 years, public broadcaster NHK said. When Tanaka became Japan’s oldest person on record she celebrated with a bottle of Coke – her favourite drink and made a peace sign for photographers.

While visiting restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic means she has had limited contact with family members, she reportedly uses gestures to communicate with nursing home staff and is keen on puzzles and board games.

The seventh of nine siblings, Tanaka married when she was 19 and helped run the family’s noodle shop after her husband and eldest son went to fight in the second Sino-Japanese war, which began in 1937.

He 62-year-old grandson, Eiji, said he wanted to congratulate Tanaka in person as soon as possible. “I hope she remains healthy and has fun everyday as she grows older,” Kyodo quoted him as saying.

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