World’s oldest person dies in Japan at the age of 119

Kane Tanaka was active until her death, and was even set to be a torch bearer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Kane Tanaka at her 117th birthday.
Kane Tanaka at her 117th birthday.KYODO Kyodo (REUTERS)

Kane Tanaka, the oldest verified living person, died on April 19 in Japan at the age of 119, as reported on Monday by the Japanese Health Ministry. In 2019, the Gerontology Research Group – which verifies and tracks the world’s supercentenarians – and the Guinness Book of Records certified that Kana had become the oldest person on the planet, following the death of Chiyo Miyako in 2018. Tanaka, the oldest citizen recorded in Japan’s history, was much loved by the Japanese people. Local media reported on her birthdays and she often made appearances during celebrations for Japan’s Respect for the Aged Day.

Tanaka was born prematurely on January 2, 1903, in the village of Wajiro, which is now part of the city of Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu. For years, she had been living in a nursing home, where she was often filmed playing the strategy game Othello, solving math problems, eating chocolate and drinking fizzy drinks. In an interview with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), Tanaka said: “I think the secret to long life is to do the things that you like.” In her case, that was eating delicious food and continuing to learn. Her hobbies also included calligraphy and arithmetic.

On her 119th birthday, Tanaka’s relatives wrote a message on her Twitter account on her behalf, which read: “If I have managed to get here it has been with the support from many people. I hope to continue having fun, happiness and energy.” In several interviews, Tanaka said that she hoped to live to be 120 years old.

On Monday, local authorities announced that Tanaka died last week of natural causes at a hospital in Fukuoka, the city where she spent her entire life. Nine days before her death, she overtook the American Sarah Knauss to become the second oldest person in history. The oldest person ever is Frenchwoman Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122.

The governor of Fukuoka, Seitaro Hattori, was shocked by the news of Tanaka’s death. “I had wanted to meet her at the end of the year during the celebrations for Respect for the Aged Day, since we did not have the opportunity to do so in the past due to the pandemic.” Tanaka had applied to participate in the torch relay ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but her relatives considered it too risky due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tanaka was seventh in a family of nine siblings. In 1922, at the age of 19, she married her cousin Hideo Tanaka, whom she did not meet until the day of her wedding, according to her biography in the Guinness Book of Records. The couple had two biological sons and two daughters (the oldest died at birth and the second died when she was just one year old), and also adopted a niece of Hideo. The family prospered thanks to their udon noodles and rice cake business, which Tanaka managed alone while her husband and eldest son fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Her husband died in 1993, at the age of 90.

The story of Tanaka, who witnessed the changes in Japan during five imperial eras (Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa, Heisei and the current Reiwa), is told in the book In Good and Bad Times, 107 years old, written by her youngest son and his wife in 2010.

The oldest living person in the world is now Lucile Random, a 118-year-old French nun, also known as Sister André, who is also the oldest known Covid-19 survivor. In Japan, the oldest person is currently Fusa Tatsumi, who is 115 years old. According to data from the World Bank, 28% of Japan’s 125 million inhabitants are 65 years of age or older.

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