At age 111, Sogen Kato was believed to be Japan’s oldest man. The only trouble was that he wasn’t so much old as he was dead. His mummified remains were found at his Tokyo apartment in July 2010. He’d been lying in bed in long underwear for the last 30 or so years.
Photo by True Forensics
Kato’s body was in such bad shape it was impossible for the coroner to determine the cause of death. Judging by the newspapers scattered around his body (his last mortal reading material) and what could be gleaned from the autopsy, he’s believed to have died somewhere between 1978 and 1980 at the unspectacular age of 79 to 81.
The family secret
Kato’s family apparently hid his death in order to hang onto his title as the oldest living man. They also got a cut of his pension money, which he continued to receive long after he gave up the ghost. Records show that they were receiving his pension as well as the pension of his widow who died in 2004.
Around the beginning of 2010, Adachi Ward officials wanted to see this honored oldster. They wanted him to make an appearance at September’s Keiro no Hi (敬老の日 – Respect for the Aged Day). The idea was to congratulate Kato along with whatever other local centenarians they could find.
His family made repeated excuses as to why he couldn’t see them and some conflicted. He was in a vegetative state. He was in an old folks’ home in the country somewhere. He just doesn’t want to see anybody right now.
This weirdness prompted the ward office to contact the police. In July 2010, they kicked down Kato’s door and made the grisly discovery.
The living Buddha
After the discovery, his relatives told people that he wanted to become a ‘living Buddha’ through the practice of sokushinbutsu (即身仏). This is a practice that was performed in fringe sects of Buddhism where monks practiced austerity to the point of death. They would eat a restricted diet of nuts, seeds, berries, bark and other food, washing it all down with a poisonous liquid which basically mummified them while they were still half-alive.
Photo by Atlas Obscura
The monk would stay in his quarters and ring a bell each day to let others know he was still alive. One day, the bell wouldn’t ring and they would seal up his room, turning it into his tomb. No sect of Buddhism practices sokushinbutsu today and it’s banned in Japan.
The search for the centenarians
The case of Sogen Kato is bizarre and slightly humorous in a morbid way, but it underlies a sad fact about today’s Japan. After his discovery, officials admitted that their census records were a mess. It was estimated there were over 200,000 elderly people on the books who may or may not be still alive. They found one individual reportedly still living at the grand old age of 186.
This led to an inquiry that found that a shocking number of elderly Japanese were dying in solitude, abandoned by their families. The case of Sogen Kato brought this sad fact to light.
Since his discovery, one of Kato’s family members has been found guilty of fraud.
R.I.P. Sogen Kato
July 22, 1899 – sometime at the end of the 70s