Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

Cheaper Sake Cup Gifts From Abe Show Surge in Japan Centenarians

  • Use of sterling silver for 100th birthday gifts discontinued
  • Move comes as aging population puts strain on public finances

One perk of getting old in Japan is a gift of a silver cup from the prime minister in the year you celebrate your 100th birthday. But from this year, new centenarians will be sipping sake from cheaper vessels.

The rising cost of supporting the aging population -- almost 32,000 people were eligible to receive the gift this year, up 4.5 percent from last year -- has prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to present cups made of silver plate rather than sterling silver. The move halves the price to 3,812 yen ($37) per cup, public broadcaster NHK said, reducing total spending on the gifts by about 40 percent to 150 million yen.

The cost-cutting follows a move to make the cups smaller in 2009, and highlights the struggle the government faces to cap spending in a debt-ridden country where more than a quarter of Japan’s 127 million people are older than 65. The proportion will rise to 40 percent by 2060, the government projects -- a problem compounded by a faltering birthrate.

This predicament is perhaps seen most clearly by the swelling of centenarians from 153 in 1963 to a record of more than 65,000 this year. The government distributes the sake cups every September to honor the elderly.

The demographic shift puts pressure on Japan’s social welfare programs in areas such as medical care and pensions, according to Hiromichi Shirakawa, chief economist at Credit Suisse Securities Japan.

"There’s no doubt that medical expenses will keep increasing as the population grays," Shirakawa said. "Providing pensions to the elderly will also become an issue. The government will have to raise the age at which people can receive pensions to ease the problem.”

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is seeking 31 trillion yen ($303 billion) for its budget in the fiscal year starting April, up 2.7 percent from this year. About 29 trillion yen is slated for healthcare and pensions.

Three Meals

Japan’s oldest person is Nabi Tajima, a 116-year-old woman from the southern prefecture of Kagoshima.

According to a profile published by the health ministry, the secret to her longevity is eating three meals day. Another profiled centenarian, Junichiro Misawa from Japan’s northern Hokkaido prefecture, said his good health and long life was due to "having a few evening drinks a week and not being picky about food."

The world’s oldest person, however, is not Japanese.

Born on Nov. 29, 1899, Emma Martina Luigia Morano, 116, of Vercelli, Italy, was confirmed by Guinness World Records in May as the oldest living person on earth. The oldest person ever was Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to 122 years and 164 days.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE