History Stories

Anyone who becomes the oldest person in the world has a tale to tell. But Nabi Tajima had an even more unique perspective on history: She was the last surviving person born during the 19th century.

Now,reports the Associated Press, Tajima has died at age 117.

Born on August 4, 1900, Tajima was the last person known to have been born during the 19th century, which lasted until January 1, 1901. She had been the oldest living person since 2017.

The Japan into which Tajima was born looked far different from the one in which she died. In 1904, Japan wasn’t a country—it was an empire in transition. Emperor Meiji was in the midst of overseeing Japan’s dramatictransformation from a feudal state with little contact with the outside world to an industrial superpower that wielded international influence.

At the time, women in Japan had no legal rights and could not vote. Male heads of household exercised complete authority, and the women in their charge could not study politics, attend political gatherings or control their own assets.

That changed during Tajima’s lifetime, during which she saw two world wars, the death of the Japanese empire, and the emergence of Japan as a democratic state. In 1946, under postwar Japan’s new constitution, women were declared equal to men under the law. Today, women in Japan are still legally equal, though Japan lags behind other nations in terms ofpolitical participation andother gender equality rankings.  

Over Tajima’s 117 years on earth, the world changed dramatically. When she was born, there was no such thing as an electric traffic light, a radio, a television, or a handheld calculator. Today, word of her death spreads via the internet, technology that would have bewildered her contemporaries.

Tajima had nine children and more than 160 descendants.According to the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks the world’s supercentenarians (people over 110 years of age), Tajima credited her long life up to “eating delicious things and sleeping well.” 

Given how much history she was able to witness during her 117 years, she must have been on to something.  

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