In Japan, Lonely Deaths in Society’s Margins

Courtesy of The New York Times |By Mark McDonald | Orignally Published 03.12.2012 | Posted 11.30.2017

HONG KONG — The utilities are cut off. The mail piles up. No sounds come from the apartment. The neighbors don’t knock. Nobody comes. Nobody goes.

These are the sad and telltale signatures of the growing number of kodokushi now being reported in Japan. The lonely deaths.

There are thousands of kodokushi every year now, people dying utterly alone or perhaps with a caregiver who has passed away before them. All the lonely people.

These are, by most accounts, people in the margins, with no friends or relatives, little or no money and few personal resources, people too wedded, perhaps, to gaman, the prideful Japanese trait of uncomplaining endurance, of bearing up, of soldiering through.

Police officials, for example, found three bodies last month in an apartment in Saitama, north of Tokyo: an elderly couple and their son. They seemed to have starved to death. There was no food around, just some bottles of water. A dead cat. A scattering of 1-yen coins.

Similar cases have been reported recently in Sapporo, Kushiro, Osaka, Tokyo and Yokohama, often with the bodies moldering for months before they’re discovered.

“The first common feature of all these incidents is that they all happened in apartments in urban areas,’’ says an editorial in The Mainichi Daily News. “The second is that they all involve pairs of people, one of whom was an elderly or disabled person being cared for by the other. The third is that none of the households were receiving social services or welfare payments, and fourth, none of the dead had significant social interactions with their neighbors.’’

Japan now has arguably the world’s oldest population. The average lifespan is nearly 80 for men, and over 86 for women. Twenty years from now, one in three Japanese will be 65 or older.

Nearly one-fourth of Japanese men and 10 percent of women over the age of 60 report having no neighbors, friends or relatives they can rely on in difficult times, according to a Japanese government survey cited in 2010 by Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail of Toronto.

“In what appears to be a collective cry for help,” Mark wrote, “more than 30,000 Japanese seniors are arrested every year for shoplifting. Many of those arrested told police they stole out of feelings of boredom and isolation, rather than any economic necessity.’’

It’s not just the elderly who are suffering kodokushi. In an apartment in Tokyo, a 4-year-old mentally disabled boy died after his mother, 45, passed away. Nearby, The Mainichi Daily News reported, “the bodies of two women thought to be a mentally disabled mother, 95, and daughter, 63, were found in a public housing unit.”

My colleague in the Tokyo bureau, Martin Fackler, profiles a popular stand-up comedian, Yoshihiro Kariya, known as Kimimaro, who confronts Japanese end-of-life worries in a direct and decidedly un-Japanese way.

“He says he does it with what he calls ‘poison-tongued comedy,’ biting, often dark humor that bluntly exposes the aches and pains, and also the fears, of growing old,” Martin writes.

Japanese bureaucrats admitted 18 months ago that they had lost track of nearly a quarter-million people over 100 years old. Martin reported that the furor started in the summer of 2010 “when the authorities in Tokyo discovered the body of Sogen Kato, the man thought to have been the city’s oldest living man at 111, mummified in his bed, dead for more than three decades.’’

“In late August, the police arrested Mr. Kato’s 81-year-old daughter and his granddaughter on charges of fraudulently collecting his pension and failing to report his death,’’ Martin wrote. “They said Mr. Kato had gone into his bedroom after a family fight in the late 1970s and had never come out.’’

Mr. Kato’s family had kept city officials away, alternately saying Mr. Kato was in a vegetative state or that he was a monk going through the process of self-mummification through deep solitude and an ascetic diet.

When the owner of a moving company in Osaka, Taichi Yoshida, was profiled in Time magazine, he said 20 percent of his jobs had become clean-outs of homes where people had died alone.

“The majority of lonely deaths are people who are kind of messy,” Mr. Yoshida said. “It’s the person who, when they take something out, they don’t put it back; when something breaks, they don’t fix it; when a relationship falls apart, they don’t repair it.”

Although lonely-death statistics in Japan are unreliable and incomplete, many of the deaths reportedly involve older men who have been pushed into early retirement by corporate restructurings and the overall economic downturn.

“Their world has evaporated under their feet,” Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist, said in the Time article. “The firm has been everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure.”

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