Supercentenarian Kane Tanaka, at a spry 118 years of age, will carry the Olympic torch on March 25, 2021 the beginning of the ceremonies leading up to this Summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.
The world’s oldest living person was given the great honor in this most unusual of all Olympic seasons, after the global event was postponed last year.
Tanaka, who was born in Wajiro, on the southern island of Kyushu, on January 2, 1903, became the oldest verified living person in the world on July 22, 2018.
Cancer survivor “enjoys living in the present”
A survivor of two bouts with cancer – one of them pancreatic cancer — she also survived the trauma of having one of her sons being captured during World War II and held prisoner in Siberia before being released and returning home in 1947.
Tanaka will be pushed in a wheelchair for most of the 100-meter (328 feet) of her relay by her relatives, but she plans to get up and walk the last few steps before she passes the torch on to the next bearer.
The supercentenarian, who has lived through two major global pandemics in her life as well as theearthquake and tsunami of 2011, was born in 1903 — the year Orville and Wilbur Wright first slipped the bounds of the earth in their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
“We want other people to feel inspired” during Olympic torch relay
Her grandson Eiji Tanaka told CNN “It’s great she reached that age and she can still keep up an active lifestyle — we want other people to see that and feel inspired, and not to think age is a barrier.” Eiji is in his 60’s.
Tanaka’s family gave her a new pair of sneakers for the special event.
She will take the flame as it goes through Shime, in the prefecture of Fukuoka, prior to the 49th Olympic Games she has experienced in her lifetime.
The secret to her long and happy life may have been revealed by Eiji when he told reporters “I don’t remember her talking much about the past … She’s very forward thinking — she really enjoys living in the present.”
The 118-year-old keeps sharp mentally by playing math games, including the game Othello, each and every day.
Survivor of wartime, earthquake, tsunami, two global pandemics
“She has always loved festivals,” Eiji added. However, he warned that her participation in March will depend on her health and weather conditions at the time of the relay.
Tanaka married a rice-shop owner at the age of 19 and had four children with him, working until the age of 103. They had five children and eight grandchildren.
She and her family have lived their entire lives in the prefecture of Fukuoka.
Almost the age of the modern Olympics, the Japanese supercentenarian (all those older than 110 years) does have some company in that arena, since a 106-year-old, Aida Gemanque of Brazil, also held the torch at the Rio games in 2016.
Alexander Kaptarenko, at a healthy 101, also ran with the torch prior to the Winter games in Sochi Games in 2014.
Although Tanaka now lives in a nursing home, she gets up at 6 AM every day and says that staying curious and doing the math games that she engages in keeps her mind sharp.
Because of Covid, her family has not been able to visit her there for a full eighteen months.
A nation which prides longevity and treasures its elderly, Japan is home to more than 80,000 centenarians, and currently one in every 1,565 people in the country is over 100 years of age.
With a life expectancy of 87.45 years, Japanese women live more than six years on average than Japanese men.
Gunning for a new record
So Tanaka is not through — not by a long shot. She is now gunning for the record as the oldest person to ever live on the earth. That record is held by a French woman who died at the incredible age of 122.
Her grandson Eiji says “She said she wants to break that record.”
Due to Covid restrictions, all those who watch Tanaka and the other Olympic torch runners will have to wear masks and use the appropriate social distancing from others.
Tokyo organizers say they will enforce the avoidance of “the three C’s” — no closed spaces, no crowded spaces and no close-contact settings, for the duration of the event.
Supporters are also encouraged to “support her with applause…rather than by shouting or cheering” as a way to reduce the threat of contracting the virus. The relay will of course be streamed online as well.
Tanaka’s great-granddaugher Junko Tanaka set up a Twitter account last year in order to celebrate her great-grandmother’s life and accomplishments. The account often features photos of Tanaka eating cake or drinking soda pop.
“I might be biased because I’m related to her but I think it’s kind of amazing — I wanted to share that with the world and for people to feel inspired and to feel her joy,” Junko says.