On February 12, representatives of Guinness World Records visited Chitetsu Watanabe’s nursing home in Niigata, Japan, to present him with a certificate verifying his status as the world’s oldest man. Less than two weeks later, Watanabe died at the age of 112, having lived an exceptionally long life that he attributed chiefly to his cheerful temperament.
According to Yuri Kageyama of the Associated Press, no cause was given for Watanabe’s death, but he had recently developed a fever and experienced difficulty breathing. The supercentenarian leaves behind 5 children, 2 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild.
Watanabe, the eldest of eight children, was born in Niigata in 1907. After graduating from agricultural school, he began working for a sugar plantation, eventually relocating to Taiwan for work. There, he married his wife, Mitsue, and started a family. In 1944, toward the end of World War II, he served in the Japanese military.
When the conflict came to an end, Watanabe and his family returned to Niigata. But life in post-war Japan proved difficult.
“[G]etting to places and sourcing food was a struggle,” daughter-in-law Yoko Watanabe, told Guinness earlier this month. “Having to live under that circumstance with four young children must have been tough.”
Watanabe was able to find work at an agricultural office, where he remained in employment until his retirement. With his career behind him, Watanabe devoted himself to his favorite hobbies. He and his son Tetsuo built a house on farmland, where Watanabe grew potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries and plums—a pursuit that he maintained until he was 104. Watanabe was also a bonsai artist, presenting his creations at local exhibitions.
At his nursing home, Watanabe filled the days with exercises, origami and calligraphy. He was reportedly very fond of sweets, particularly brown sugar. In his very old age, having lost his teeth, Watanabe opted for easy-to-chew treats like custard pudding.
Supercentenarians, or people who live to the age of 110 or older, are a rare demographic. There are only around 150 known to be living across the globe—though as Amy Harmon points out for the New York Times, amateur genealogists estimate that number may reach 1,000 when unverified individuals are taken into account.
A leading authority tracking supercentenarians is the Gerontology Research Group, reported Rachel Nuwer for Smithsonian magazine in 2014. The organization vets supercentenarian candidates by checking at least two pieces of documentation proving their age; a current photo ID; and, for women who took their husband’s name after marriage, proof of the name change. Some people may slip through the cracks because they cannot fully verify their supercentenarian status.
Japan is “regularly well-represented among the record holders for world’s oldest,” writes Kim Bellware of the Washington Post. Just last month, in fact, a Japanese woman named Kane Tanaka celebrated her 117th birthday, cementing her status as the oldest living person.
Life expectancy in the country is around 84 years of age—the world’s second highest—and Japan is home to more than 71,000 centenarians. The country’s longevity has been credited to factors like healthy culinary traditions and familial support for the elderly. But the quality of Japan’s record-keeping may also play a role in boosting its citizens onto the World Records list; according to Nuwer, Japan has been keeping meticulous birth records for more than a century.
When asked about the secret to his long life, Watanabe had an entirely different explanation. The key, he said, is “not to get angry and keep a smile on your face.”