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The big 116

Kamato Hongo, believed to be the world's oldest person, has another birthday. Her secret to life? "Not moping around," she says.

By Associated Press
Published September 17, 2003

TOKYO - A Japanese woman believed to be the oldest person in the world turned 116 on Tuesday.

Born in 1887, when Japan was still in the throes of its conversion from samurai rule to modern democracy, Kamato Hongo was recognized as the world's oldest living person by the Guinness Book of World Records after a Michigan woman, Maude Farris-Luse, died in March 2002 at the age of 115.

Hongo, whose husband died when she was 77, is famous throughout Japan for her habit of sleeping for two days and then staying awake for two days.

She has seven children, three of whom have died; 27 grandchildren; 57 great-grandchildren; and 11 great-great-grandchildren.

An Internet homepage devoted to her lists her favorite snack as unrefined brown sugar and also reveals her secret to long life.

"Not moping around," it says.

Hongo is now bedridden and shares a hospital room with her 77-year-old daughter.

She was raised on a small, rural island on Japan's southern fringe and grew up tending to cows and farming potatoes. The same island also produced the Japanese record-holder for longevity, a woman who died at the age of 120.

Hongo symbolizes the graying of Japan's society. a trend that elicits both pride and concern.

The world's oldest documented man, 114-year-old Yukichi Chuganji, is Japanese. Japan's life expectancy - 85.23 years for women and 78.32 for men in 2002 - is the longest in the world.

The average age of the population is also steadily rising.

An annual government survey released Monday in conjunction with Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday, showed a record 24.3-million Japanese - almost one in five - have reached their 65th birthday.

At the same time, Japan marked a record low 1.32 births per woman last year, a figure that has been falling for the last three decades and reflects changing values that have led more women to choose careers over children.

The changing demographic has raised fears the nation's pension and health care systems will be badly strained in the years ahead by a population consisting of fewer and fewer Japanese of working and taxpaying age.

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