In September 2019, the mayor of Fukuoka, Japan, made a pilgrimage to see Kane Tanaka at her nursing home. She was 116 years old then and fielded questions from a gaggle of reporters with the cocky confidence of a prizefighter.
What, they asked, was the secret to living so long?
“Being myself,” she said.
Best diet for staying healthy?
“Appreciate anything I eat.” She had developed a taste for chocolate and Coca-Cola on an American military base and regularly consumed fizzy drinks for a half-century.
When Ms. Tanaka died last week at 119, not far from the now-shuttered base in the southern city of Fukuoka, she was the world’s oldest person and had lived seven years longer than the oldest American veteran of World War II.
In Japan, which has the world’s oldest population, Ms. Tanaka had become a symbol of how to age gracefully and fend off cancer and other ailments. Deep into her 12th decade, visitors found her to be not just alert, but vivacious and irrepressibly funny.
A silver role model
Japan’s demographic trends have spawned a range of challenges, including older drivers, an epidemic of dementia and growing piles of waste from adult diapers. They have also created a need for role models like Ms. Tanaka, who not only endure, but thrive, in their golden years and beyond.
“She had a clear mind, took care of herself and lived to an advanced age,” said Shinichi Oshima, the president of the Japan Foundation for Aging and Health. “That’s worth celebrating. And she gave a hope to others, making them think, ‘Oh, we may be able to live to that age, too.’”
Dr. Oshima said that Ms. Tanaka’s life may presage a future in which the average Japanese life span — 87.7 for women and 81.6 for men — continues to grow, possibly until the point where living to 100 is no longer seen as unusual.
Government data suggest that Japan may have more centenarians than any other country. As of last August, about 86,000 of its 125 million people were over 100 years old. Japan has more than six centenarians per 10,000 people, the data show, more than twice the figure for the United States and France, which are tied for second place.
“From a social viewpoint, it’s important to build social systems in which elderly people are fully accepted and can carry out a prosperous life,” he said. “How can we build communities for them that value longevity?”
Kane Tanaka was born on Jan. 2, 1903, to Kumakichi and Kuma Ota, farmers who lived in a village that is now part of Fukuoka City, her grandson Eiji Tanaka said.
After graduating from elementary school, she went to work helping families with tasks like babysitting, farming, carpentry and weaving, according to an article in the Nishi Nippon Shimbun newspaper.
At 19, Ms. Tanaka married a cousin, Hideo Tanaka, and the couple later had two sons and two daughters, both of whom died before the age of 2, her grandson said. They also adopted and raised some of their relatives’ children.
For years, the Tanakas ran a shop that sold mochi, a sweet rice cake. But during World War II, Mr. Tanaka was drafted and sent to fight in the Solomon Islands as part of Japan’s campaign in the Pacific theater, the Japanese magazine President reported earlier this month. Their oldest son, Nobuo, was sent to fight on the Korean Peninsula and in Mongolia, where he was taken prisoner. (He returned to Japan in 1947.)
Ms. Tanaka kept busy during the war by running the mochi shop and opening an udon noodle restaurant at the Japanese Navy’s base in Fukuoka. At the time, she was supporting not only herself, but also her mother- and father-in-law and her sister-in-law’s three children. She continued working at the base after the United States military took it over in 1945.
In 1959, she and her husband opened a kindergarten in a church that they would operate for nearly 40 years. And in 1970, she opened a floral shop that she would run for another decade or so, traveling across the city by boat to buy flowers three times a week.
In addition to the deaths of all her children, Ms. Tanaka endured a host of medical problems. She contracted paratyphoid in 1938 and had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 1948, cataracts in 1993 and colon cancer in 2006.
She lived through two world wars and the influenza outbreak of 1918. For months during the coronavirus pandemic, Japan’s Covid-19 rules prevented her relatives from visiting her in person. She had been scheduled to carry the torch at the Tokyo Olympics last year, but withdrew because she did not want to spread the virus within her nursing home.
Ms. Tanaka died on April 19 in a Fukuoka hospital, Japan’s Health Ministry said in a statement. Her grandson said she had been feeling ill since late last year. A funeral will be held in the city on Friday.
“She was aiming to reach 120 but could not make it,” her grandson said. “But she died in peace.”
Ms. Tanaka is survived by at least five grandchildren and at least eight great-grandchildren. Her husband, who had dementia, died of cancer in 1993 at 90. Their eldest son died in 2005, and their younger one, Tsuneo, died five years ago.
The oldest person in Japan is now Fusa Tatsumi, a woman who turned 115 on Monday, according to the Health Ministry. A 118-year-old nun who lives in France and is known as Sister André is now the world’s oldest person, said Yvonne Zhang, a spokeswoman for Guinness World Records.
When Fukuoka’s mayor, Soichiro Takashima, visited Ms. Tanaka in 2019, he asked how much longer she wanted to live. She replied that she hadn’t thought about it. “I don’t feel like I will die,” she said.
After she retired in her late 70s, Ms. Tanaka occupied herself by doing domestic chores and visiting relatives in Japan and the United States. She stayed sharp in part by reading newspapers, doing math problems and playing Othello and other board games.
“She hated losing,” her grandson said.
She was in and out of the hospital for months before her death. Even when she was ill, her grandson said, she would talk about wanting to eat chocolate or drink Coke or Oronamin C Drink, a Japanese soda.
For her last birthday, in January, the nursing home staff gave her a cake decorated in the style of the lettering on bottles of Oronamin C. One of her great-grandchildren, Junko Tanaka, 25, posted a picture of the event on a Twitter page she had set up in Ms. Tanaka’s honor.
Ms. Tanaka kept her sharp wit until the end, and she liked to entertain the reporters who would drop by to interview her, said Chikako Tanaka, her granddaughter-in-law.
At one such session, a reporter asked, brazenly, what kind of man the centenarian preferred. She didn’t miss a beat.
“A young man like you,” she said.