A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death

Courtesy of NewYorkTimes.com |By Norimitsu Onishi | Photos by Ko Sasaki | Originally Published 11.30.2017 | Posted 12.30.2017

TOKIWADAIRA, Japan — Cicadas, every Japanese schoolchild knows, lie underground for years before rising to the earth’s surface in summer. They climb up the nearest tree, where they cast off their shells and start their short second lives. During their few days among us, they mate, fly and cry. They cry until their bodies are found on the ground, twitching in their last moments, or on their backs with their legs pointing upward.

Chieko Ito hated the din they made. They had just started shrieking, as they always did in early summer, and the noise would keep getting louder in the weeks to come, invading her third-floor apartment, making any kind of silence impossible. As one species of cicadas quieted down, another’s distinct cry would take over. Then, as the insects peaked in numbers, showers of dead and dying cicadas would rain down on her enormous housing complex, stopping only with the end of summer itself.

“You hear them from morning to evening,” she sighed.

 It was the afternoon of her 91st birthday, and unusually hot, part of a heat wave that had community leaders worried. Elderly volunteers had been winding through the labyrinth of footpaths, distributing leaflets on the dangers of heatstroke to the many hundreds of residents like Mrs. Ito who lived alone in 171 nearly identical white buildings. With no families or visitors to speak of, many older tenants spent weeks or months cocooned in their small apartments, offering little hint of their existence to the world outside their doors. And each year, some of them died without anyone knowing, only to be discovered after their neighbors caught the smell.

The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.

 “4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.

To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.

“The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” said Takumi Nakazawa, 83, the chairman of the resident council at Mrs. Ito’s housing complex for the past 32 years.

Summer was the most dangerous season for these lonely deaths, and Mrs. Ito wasn’t taking any chances. Birthday or not, she knew that no one would call, drop a note or stop by to check on her. Born in the last year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, she never expected to live this long. One by one, family and friends had vanished or grown feeble. Ghosts, of the living and dead, now dwelled all around her in the scores of uniform buildings she and her husband had rushed to in 1960, when all of Japan seemed young.

“Now every room is mine, and I can do as I please,” Mrs. Ito said. “But it’s no good.”

Chieko Ito, 91, has lived in her housing complex, or danchi, one of the biggest in Japan, for nearly 60 years. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.

If her neighbor happened to notice the paper screen in daylight, the woman could promptly alert the authorities. Everything else had been thought out and taken care of in advance. On her 90th birthday, Mrs. Ito had filled out an “ending note” that organized her final affairs. The notes, which have become popular in Japan, help ensure a clean, orderly death. Mrs. Ito had also given away the tablets from the family’s Buddhist altar — the miniature headstones considered so precious that many Japanese would scoop them up before running out of a house on fire.

So many things in her apartment now reminded her of the dead. There were the paperbacks, hundreds of them jammed onto shelves, that her dying husband had told her to throw away after reading. The finely carved chest of drawers, which her daughter had carted away after getting married, sat there, too, returned decades ago when the young woman died. Tucked inside a cabinet were the books that Mrs. Ito had written herself, including a dry but exhaustive two-volume book about her life in the housing complex and a 224-page autobiography, all finished in a final burst of activity.

Mrs. Ito, meticulous as ever, had even left behind money to clean out her home once the day arrived. The only thing left to do was to wipe away the red coloring from her name, already engraved on the family headstone, to signify that she had finally joined her husband and daughter.

“Everybody around me has died, one after another, and I’m the only one left,” she said. “But when I think about death, I’m afraid.”

No One Knew Their Names

Ambulances are a frequent sight at the complex. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times 

The heat soon started taking its toll. By midsummer, two bodies were discovered in the complex — victims, it seemed, of the early heat wave. The first death occurred in Mrs. Ito’s section, where a woman detected the smell from the apartment below. Initially, she thought somebody had gotten a delivery of dried fish called kusaya. Then the stench intensified, especially on the balcony where she hung her laundry. None of the dead man’s neighbors knew him, though he had lived there for years. He was 67.

The second man’s body was found two days later. Again, the smell had become so intense that it had kept his next-door neighbor awake for three nights. The man was elderly, had lived there for years, and chatted about the cherry blossoms with his neighbors, but they didn’t know his name. The inside of his apartment, visible through a small ventilation window, was covered in trash. Green bottle flies hovered around the vent.

The building management tried to contain the smell, taping over every crevice — the edges of the men’s front doors, their letter flaps, even the locks. It was futile. The stench seeped out, filling hallways, stairways and homes.

Mrs. Ito kept busy, trying not to think about it. She took long walks outside the complex, which stretches across a Tokyo suburb for more than a mile, spreading out in the shape of a giant fan. She kept track of her steps on her cellphone, spent an hour every morning writing Buddhist sutras to her daughter and husband, and helped keep local forests clean with a volunteer group.

Every month, she attended the lunches that residents organized to keep the isolation at bay and reduce the risk of lonely deaths. At the gatherings, she had settled into a routine, always sitting at a table across from a man with wobbly legs and a big appetite, Yoshikazu Kinoshita. The two could hardly have been more different — her days were organized to the minute; he got out of bed only when he felt like it. But their conversations, which some might have dismissed as small talk, had acquired deep meaning.

“That’s the way I manage,” she said of her activities.

Yoshikazu Kinoshita arriving at one of the monthly lunches for tenants who live alone. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times
 She spoke rapidly, in long sentences, with an unusual directness for someone of her generation. Even in uncomfortable moments, she never sought refuge in the vagueness of the Japanese language. For the rare occasions that words failed her, she kept voluminous proof of the life she had lived, cataloged exhaustively by year and subject. The photo books in her apartment were filled with black-and-white images of young families like hers. And bound in yellow covers, with titles in Mrs. Ito’s elegant calligraphy, were the books she had written, including the two-volume collection on her life in the housing complex: Tokiwadaira.

In the 1960s, the Japanese government built huge housing developments outside Tokyo and other cities, each holding thousands of young “salarymen” entrusted with rebuilding Japan’s postwar economy. The complexes — sprawling collections of buildings called danchi — introduced Japan to a Western structure of life centered on the nuclear family, breaking from the traditional multigenerational homes. The new apartments, seen as essential to Japan’s rebirth, had strict requirements. The monthly wages of tenants in Tokiwadaira had to be at least 5.5 times the rent, ensuring that only the most successful people got in.

Mrs. Ito’s husband, Eizo, worked at a top advertising agency. But competition to enter one of the danchi was so fierce that the couple had given up after 13 tries. Then a relative secretly submitted an application in their name for a place still under construction, on farmland an hour east of Tokyo.

Even before Shinto priests purified the soil and construction workers broke ground, Tokiwadaira was already drawing interest nationwide. The Japanese had never seen anything quite like it: around 4,800 apartments devouring a space so large that it was serviced by two train stations on the same line.

The Itos arrived in mid-December 1960, on the very first day that tenants were allowed in. It was a clear day, full of promise, with Mount Fuji visible in the distance from their third-floor balcony. Her 4-year-old stepdaughter, Mrs. Ito wrote in her autobiography, was “so happy that she ran around the apartment, drawing a complaint from their second-floor neighbor.”

Their new home was called a “3K” — three small rooms and a kitchen, with a bathroom and toilet. What struck Mrs. Ito wasn’t only the modern efficiency of the place, the concrete sturdiness that seemed capable of withstanding the strongest earthquakes, or the sun that came into every room. Peeking into the kitchen for the first time, she found the item that had, perhaps more than anything else, caused housewives to dream of life in the danchi: a sink, no longer made of tiles, but of sparkling stainless steel.

Her kitchen stood in the center of the apartment, not in a dark corner at the back of the house as in old Japanese homes. The kitchen’s centrality spoke of the new, elevated role of housewives. Like other privileged residents of the danchi, Mrs. Ito soon enjoyed the newest home appliances — a refrigerator, a washing machine and a black-and-white television set.

“We called them the Three Sacred Treasures,” Mrs. Ito said. The term, popular back then, was the burgeoning consumer society’s reinterpretation of the Three Sacred Treasures in Japan’s imperial mythology: the sword, the mirror and the jewel.

“We were happy,” Mrs. Ito said.

A photograph of Mrs. Ito’s family, taken on New Year’s Day in 1972 in a park in the housing complex. From left: her husband, Eizo; Mrs. Ito; her daughter, Chizuko; and stepdaughter, Eriko.

After Mrs. Ito gave birth to a daughter a couple of years later, everything was settled. Her husband rode the packed train six days a week to Tokyo. She taught at a nursery school inside the complex, in charge of the Tulip Group. The danchi’s population of children swelled, just as it did all over Japan. In a few years, there were so many children that they collectively became known as Japan’s Second Baby Boom generation.

Every New Year, the family put on their kimonos for photos. They also took part in the annual sports days, a ritual of Japanese life in which children and parents compete in races and other events. In the summer, Mrs. Ito took her daughters to one of the danchi’s wading pools. In her photos, the pool is always full of water, always full of young mothers in modest one-piece bathing suits, always full of children. The housing complex even had its own song: “Burning with hope, full of health and strength, let’s rise all of us.”

Mrs. Ito, top left, with Chizuko, in a yellow swim cap, and Eriko, in a white swim cap with black dots, at the danchi’s wading pool in the summer of 1967.
Fallen twigs and dirt now litter the empty pool. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Mrs. Ito used to stand at her window, the one with the paper screen, and look down at the playground and sandboxes below. The children of the nearby buildings played there together, their shouts loudest during the summer. Now, no one played there. The children had mostly vanished, their jubilant cries replaced by the frequent annoying sirens of ambulances.

The fading danchi are no longer a symbol of the young families rebuilding Japan. Nearly half of Tokiwadaira’s residents are over 65. During a midsummer walk, Mrs. Ito pointed to the pool captured in her pictures decades ago. It was empty: a large circle, with fallen twigs and dirt littering its faded pale blue bottom.

“This is the pool, where my children used to swim,” Mrs. Ito said, suddenly growing quiet.

She stood in the deserted playground, slowly taking in a place that, to her, seemed more real in her photos than in the present day.

“It’s gone!” she said after a few seconds. “There was a jungle gym here before. I used to let them play on it. Now it’s gone. So many things are.”

‘Second Life’

 When I first met Mrs. Ito, it barely occurred to me that no one else had called or visited that afternoon. Only weeks later did she tell me — excitedly, as if she had been waiting for me to ask — that her birthday had fallen on the day of my first visit.

Instead, she had simply handed me her book: “Chieko’s 53 years in Tokiwadaira danchi.” It was an encyclopedia of dates, names, events and photos spanning 394 pages. No one else had read it, and it wasn’t clear then, even to her, why she had gone through the considerable trouble of composing drafts in longhand, typing it up on her laptop and printing it out.

“Writing is such a hassle, so it’s strange, this need to write,” she said.

She was born into a family of storytellers. Her paternal great-grandfather was a celebrated professional narrator who traveled around the country, recounting episodes from Japan’s feudal history. He was known by the stage name Hogyusha Torin, and his works survive in the national library. Her grandfather, also a professional storyteller, lived with Mrs. Ito when she was a child. He would sit at her desk, marking up his texts and binding the folding fan that he used during his performances.

“Maybe it’s in my blood,” Mrs. Ito said.

In her book, Mrs. Ito broke her life in the danchi into two distinct parts. The first begins with her wedding and ends 32 years later with the deaths of her husband and daughter.

She gave the impression that her life — her true life — had ended with theirs, especially her daughter, of whom she often spoke in the present tense. Sometimes she would tell a joke or show a flash of anger at the mention of her daughter’s death. More often, she stared straight ahead.

Part two — subtitled “My Second Life” — focuses on friends, trips and goings on around the housing complex. Old friendships are renewed and new ones are made, though Mrs. Ito outlives them all.

As the weeks passed and the cicadas’ incessant cries became the backdrop to every conversation, Mrs. Ito ultimately concluded that she had started writing to break the solitude, so she wouldn’t forget. “Even the unhappy events,” she said. “Otherwise, everything is lost forever.”

After her husband and daughter died in 1992, Mrs. Ito’s “Second Life” began. By then, Tokiwadaira and Japan’s other danchi had lost much of their luster. Families preferred living in houses or condominiums. Aging childless couples and individuals gravitated to Tokiwadaira.

Years passed. The woman died, as did other friends, inside and outside the danchi. Her sister developed dementia. A brother became homebound. Even a younger brother now had trouble walking.

“I’ve been lonely for 25 years,” she said. “They’re the ones to blame for dying. I’m angry.”

At the monthly lunch for tenants who live alone, Mrs. Ito, a light eater, got into the habit of giving her tablemate, Mr. Kinoshita, half of her meal before she started. After learning that he liked reading, she lent him a few books. He began lending her some, and included some chocolate.

Once, he asked her to come to his place to retrieve a book.

“That’s when I found out that his place was full of garbage.”

A Moment of Glory

Mr. Kinoshita, 83, moved into Tokiwadaira 14 years ago. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Mr. Kinoshita lived in a ground-floor “2DK” apartment — two rooms and a dine-in kitchen. Piles of old clothes, boxes, books, newspapers, empty food containers and heaps of trash blanketed the floor. A single open trail led from the bed to the toilet, passing by the only clean item in the apartment: a white T-shirt hanging from a shelf, still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic.

Mr. Kinoshita was 83. His legs had grown weak. He used a “silver chair” that he rolled in front of him to steady himself. He left his apartment perhaps once a week.

After Mrs. Ito saw the state of his apartment, she alerted community leaders. Men who lived alone in the danchi, weakened by age and infirmity in apartments like that, were the most vulnerable. She learned that volunteers were already keeping an eye on him.

Months ago, after he had not been seen for a week, a volunteer went knocking on his door. There was no answer, but she could hear the television from inside. Thinking he was dead, the volunteer called the police. When Mr. Kinoshita finally woke up from a deep sleep, he was a little embarrassed, yet also relieved and maybe even a little happy that his existence had figured into someone’s thoughts.

“Thanks for your kindness,” Mr. Kinoshita liked to say in English, perhaps avoiding sentiments that were too hard to express in Japanese.

He had left Tokyo in his late 60s and moved into Tokiwadaira 14 years ago, just as the lonely deaths were becoming common. The year he moved in, Tokiwadaira recorded 15 of them. Today, volunteers have managed to reduce them to about 10 a year.

Mr. Kinoshita had lost everything before coming to the danchi. He had lost his company to bankruptcy and also the money he had borrowed from his sisters and brothers, who told him, “You’re the one who’s ruined the Kinoshita clan.” He had lost his house, and his second wife, who told him, “There’s no use staying with a husband who’d sell away our house.”

It would have been easy to see Mr. Kinoshita as just another victim of the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble. His company, I Love Industry, which worked as a subcontractor on underground construction projects — the “tail of a mouse,” he said — had ridden the country’s construction boom from the 1960s through the 1990s until public works contracts dried up.

Yet he had also enjoyed a moment of glory, one that he clung to the way Mrs. Ito clung to the Tokiwadaira in her books. During the construction of the Channel Tunnel, he had supplied a major contractor, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, with equipment — a reel for a hose — to help bore under the Strait of Dover.

Mr. Kinoshita’s large eyes lit up as he brought out his old business card, sketches of the equipment he had provided and photos of himself in his heyday: at a celebration at Kawasaki’s headquarters; on site under the Dover Strait; visiting tourist attractions in Paris during his sole visit to Europe.

Mr. Kinoshita’s Eurotunnel key holder and map of France. During the construction of the Channel Tunnel, he supplied a major contractor with equipment. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

 There were talismans — a Eurotunnel key holder, which he held between his fingers and showed people, without ever letting go, as if he were afraid of losing it. He had commemorative medals of the tunnel’s construction, a rock fragment encased in plastic, and the T-shirt carefully preserved in dry-cleaning wrap. It had a blue and red circle with “Euro Tunnel” inside.

From his foray in Europe, he had brought back a habit of sprinkling some French words into his speech, on top of the broken English he had picked up decades earlier from a college friend.

“All over Paris, I kept hearing, ‘Merci madame,’ ” he said. “I couldn’t wait to go back to Tokyo and say, ‘Merci madame.’ ”

Mr. Kinoshita took out a large black-and-white shot of himself in his 20s, working in a rice warehouse. Wearing only a loincloth that emphasized his sinewy frame and rodlike legs, he carried three rice bags on his shoulders, totaling 400 pounds. “When I was young,” he said in English.

He was born in Taiwan, part of Japan’s colonial empire back then. His family returned after World War II to southwestern Japan, where he ate the frogs he caught in rice fields. Even in the family’s poverty and his nation’s defeat, the adolescent Kinoshita caught glimpses of a bright future in Japan’s energy and youth.

“My generation had dreams,” said Mr. Kinoshita, who went on to study mechanical engineering.

He had never imagined that his decline — and Japan’s — could be so rapid. Corporate giants like Sharp were now being taken over by a company in Taiwan, Japan’s former colony, he said with bewilderment. In 2011, when Japan was hit by a terrible earthquake and tsunami, Mr. Kinoshita rose to his feet and steadied a cabinet from toppling over. Since then, the same legs that had supported the bags of rice could barely uphold his shrinking body.

The world he knew had shrunk. He went to a health club until last year. Sitting in the Jacuzzi helped his legs, and he liked it when women came into the tub. But one day he passed out in the Jacuzzi and an ambulance was called. He came to, refused to get into the ambulance, and never returned to the health club. Now, he went out only a few times a month — to the supermarket, or to the monthly lunches where he shared a table with Mrs. Ito.

His friendship with “Madame Ito” gave him energy, though she was the one who did most of the talking. “She’s very assertive, to the point where I can’t get a word in,” he said.

He was touched that she gave him half of her lunch, and that she lent him books, though he had racier tastes. “I tend to prefer erotic books,” he said.

On a rare trip outside Tokiwadaira, Mr. Kinoshita took the train to Tokyo. He brought back Hershey’s chocolate bars for Mrs. Ito and for the volunteer who had come knocking on his door. Mr. Kinoshita called her “Madame Eleven.”

He was hoping to make copies of his Eurotunnel T-shirt for Madame Ito and Madame Eleven. He had bought a dozen during his trip to Europe, but the one in the dry-cleaning wrap was his last.

‘I Think They’ve Protected Me’

Mrs. Ito waiting for a bus to visit the family grave. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

On July 24, the monthly anniversary of her daughter’s death, Mrs. Ito left her apartment early in the morning to visit the grave, following the same path she had taken for the past quarter-century. Tall and long-limbed for someone of her generation, she walked with a straight back, maintaining the posture of someone much younger. Wearing jeans and sneakers, she headed up a narrow sidewalk, nearly touching the cars stuck in morning traffic beside her.

The annual Obon festival of the dead was just a few weeks away, so Mrs. Ito also dropped by a local pear farmer and ordered midsummer fruit to be sent to her brothers and others, including the neighbor who looked up at the paper screen in her window.

She had never failed to visit the graves, even on cold winter mornings. But she had made a few concessions for age, visiting her husband and daughter twice a month until she turned 85, then once a month after that. She brought food, eating it next to her daughter. She spoke to her, recounting the events since her last visit. The cemetery was always quiet, except in summer when the cicadas appeared.

“I don’t tell her anything that might cause her to worry — I’ll never tell her any problems I might have,” Mrs. Ito said.

She picked up a bucket and filled it with water. With a white cloth, she gently washed her daughter’s black headstone. It rose nearly as tall as Mrs. Ito herself, who had lost more than two inches of her height to age.

“I can’t reach the back, so I do only the front,” she said, laughing.

She arranged the flowers she had brought, including lilies, her daughter’s favorite. She always avoided chrysanthemums. They were associated with death in Japan, and her daughter disliked them, anyway. She lit some sticks of incense, closed her eyes, put her hands together and bowed her head.

Speaking to her daughter and husband, Mrs. Ito believed, had kept her healthy. “At this age, usually, you can’t hear or see anymore, or you’ve lost your teeth. Everything. I think they’ve protected me.”

This belief — that the spirits of the dead remain part of the lives of the living — was rooted in the Buddhism that guides the Japanese on matters of death. Maintaining that link came by taking care of the family grave. But in an aging society with fewer children, the difficulty of the task has become a daily topic of conversation. “What do we do with our graves?” asked the same weekly magazine that tapped into the national anxiety over lonely deaths.

Some plots in the same row as Mrs. Ito’s daughter were showing the neglect: weeds growing out of crevices, threatening to invade headstones. Entire areas hidden under overgrown plants and small trees, covering the names of the dead. They were like the aging villages across Japan that, after the last inhabitants became too feeble or died, were being reclaimed by nature.

Mrs. Ito at her husband’s family grave. Her name is already on the headstone. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Mrs. Ito’s daughter, Chizuko, had died at the age of 29. She had long been sickly, but when she died, Mrs. Ito waited outside the crematory as her husband went in.

“I just couldn’t watch my own daughter being put into the fire,” Mrs. Ito said.

It was her daughter’s death that had left her truly alone. If her daughter were alive, she would not have to ask her neighbor to watch the paper screen in her window. She wouldn’t have to send the pears every summer.

“If this child were here now,” she said, “there would be nothing to worry about.”

In keeping with Japanese custom, the dead often receive Buddhist names, which are engraved on their headstones. Once delivered from this world, they move on to the next, bearing new names as Buddhas themselves. That way, they will not mistakenly return to this world if the living happened to call them by their old names.

Mrs. Ito’s daughter, though, did not have a posthumous Buddhist name. The engraving on the headstone read: “According to the wishes of the deceased, she has become a flower and rests here.”

Sitting in Mrs. Ito’s apartment, I remembered that she had mentioned a collection of photo albums of her balcony. I asked to see it, and she immediately pulled out 11 slim albums cataloged with her typical precision.

I had expected balcony photos similar to those in her other collections: her young daughters sitting in an inflatable pool; or the portrait of her husband shown at his funeral, of him standing on the balcony on a rare snowy day.

But the photos in these albums were all of flowers, flowers that Mrs. Ito had kept on her balcony since her daughter’s death — amaryllises, geraniums, carnations, roses, morning glories, narcissuses, marigolds, every flower, it seemed, with the exception of chrysanthemums.

“I wonder,” she said earnestly, “why I took so many.”

Signs of Life

Mr. Kinoshita’s apartment. Volunteers have kept an eye on him, as men who live alone there are vulnerable. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

To community leaders in the danchi, the powerful odors coming from the apartments of men like Mr. Kinoshita — of sweat, urine, stale food and garbage — were the reassuring smell of life. When that came out of the letter flap of an apartment, they knew no one was dead inside. It was, perhaps more precisely, the smell of somebody clinging to life, which Mr. Kinoshita carried with him whenever he went outside.

But as his legs weakened further, Mr. Kinoshita’s world shrank to the confines of his apartment. Then, as the garbage piled up, his apartment shrank to his bed, where he sat or lay during the midsummer weeks, usually dressed only in a loin cloth.

He had given up trying to clean. A social worker had visited this year, carting away a drafting machine used to design equipment for the Eurotunnel. But the garbage piled up again. When a cold kept him indoors over the summer, maggots appeared inside a bowl of unfinished instant curry on the floor.

The midsummer cries of the cicadas — “meeen, meeen, meeen” — echoed inside his apartment. Though they annoyed Mrs. Ito, they appealed to Mr. Kinoshita’s sense of the ephemeral.

“They cry desperately, they continue to cry as long as they’re alive,” Mr. Kinoshita said.

His favorite were the cicadas that appeared in late summer every year, singing “tsuku-tsuku boshi” and signaling the coming change in seasons. His eyes bulged with excitement when he heard them for the first time outside his window.

He was still a man of appetites, whether it was the lunch he accepted from Mrs. Ito, or the memory of intimacy. “When I was young,” he said.

One evening, while sitting on his bed, he put in his dentures and slipped on the shorts and shirt he wore when he left home. He was headed to a monthly music performance he regularly attended at a computer repair shop. It was the only event marked on his wall calendar that month.

At the shop, a singer began performing jazz standards. Her flirtatious voice and comments elicited small grunts of appreciation from Mr. Kinoshita. He tapped his fingers to the music.

During a break, the dozen mostly regular attendees spoke to one another, sharing food and drinks spread out on a large table. Mr. Kinoshita sat quietly in a corner, eating voraciously and drinking from the best bottle of whiskey.

Mr. Kinoshita at a music event at a computer repair shop. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

“Grandpa, you have expensive tastes, don’t you?” the host said, loudly enough for everyone to hear.

Some of the attendees said they had never seen Mr. Kinoshita before, though he was a regular just like them. I remembered what a community leader had told me about the men at risk of lonely deaths. The leader, an active Buddhist with a philosophical bent, said that those men — cut off from much human contact — were ghosts and ciphers, using a Japanese word that, phonetically, meant both.

Perhaps the other regulars, all of them also elderly, had really never noticed Mr. Kinoshita. The exception was a man wearing a blue T-shirt with “The Coach” on it. He spoke briefly with Mr. Kinoshita, who told him about the Eurotunnel and showed him the key holder, his fingers never letting go.

By the last song, Mr. Kinoshita was facing a wall. He had turned around his chair, sinking into the music’s sweetness.

“Monsieur,” the man in the coach T-shirt said, tapping him tenderly on the shoulder, “it’s over.”

Nostalgia for a Golden Age


Summer is the most dangerous season for lonely deaths. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times


The housing complex in Mrs. Ito’s books and memories, like the other aging danchi across Japan, has become a strong object of nostalgia in recent years. Movies, books and blogs have proliferated, dissecting and celebrating various aspects of life in the danchi.

They were mostly fueled by a longing for a golden age in Japan’s postwar history, when the country, it seemed, was united in a vision of the future. But they depicted a world far removed from actual life in places like Tokiwadaira, where the present had broken from the past.

As it slipped into late summer, community leaders hoped there would be no more lonely deaths this season. Relatives of one of the dead men had stepped forward, hiring the professionals who clean out apartments where lonely deaths have occurred. Though weeks had passed, the door of the 67-year-old man who had died in Mrs. Ito’s section was still taped over and his smell remained in the stairs outside.

Showers of cicadas fell on Tokiwadaira. Their empty shells and dead bodies lay scattered everywhere. Mrs. Ito found them in the stairway outside her apartment. One lay in front of Mr. Kinoshita’s door.

With the Obon festival of the dead approaching, the supermarkets began selling Obon kits, which included thin wooden sticks, a little horse and a cow. When lit, the burning sticks guided ancestors back to this world on a galloping horse. After three days, the living sent the ancestors back to the other world, slowly, on the back of a cow. It was the annual reunion of the living and the dead.

Mrs. Ito had stopped celebrating Obon decades ago. In the danchi, she couldn’t light the sticks in front of her door, as her family had done in Tokyo. But the pears she had ordered were delivered, as they were every summer, just before Obon. Calls of thanks arrived, including one during her monthly visit to her husband’s grave.

“Hello? Who is this please? Eriko?” Mrs. Ito said, answering her cellphone in front of the grave.

Mrs. Ito and Eriko, her stepdaughter, rarely spoke. Mrs. Ito sent pears. Eriko sent her carnations on Mother’s Day. The phone call lasted a couple of minutes.

“But you take care. You’ll be 60 years old, soon enough. There’s no contact — I know, there are a lot of people. I even have great-grandchildren. Everybody’s busy, that’s why I imagine there’s no contact. Thanks for the carnations. All right, you take care of yourself.”

Mrs. Ito resumed cleaning the grave, pulling weeds and pouring water over the headstone where her name was engraved in red — the color of a living person who intended to enter that grave some day.

“When I die,” she said, “they can just take out the color.”

Her cremated remains would be buried under the headstone. Her possessions, even her exhaustively chronicled autobiographies, would almost certainly be incinerated.

A Neighbor to Watch Over Her


Toyoko Sakai, 83, in her apartment. Mrs. Ito asked her to look out her window every day to check on her. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times


It was a very short walk from Mrs. Ito’s home to the ground-floor apartment of her neighbor, Toyoko Sakai, 83, the woman tasked with looking at her window once a day.

Mrs. Ito lit a stick of incense and clasped her hands before the woman’s Buddhist altar. A portrait of Mrs. Sakai’s deceased husband sat in a frame between bouquets of flowers. A melon and a big round pear, one of the pears Mrs. Ito had sent her, sat below the portrait.

“Because you’re kind enough to look after me, I have to bring something,” Mrs. Ito said.

Mrs. Sakai, who was hard of hearing but had good eyes, had an unobstructed view of Mrs. Ito’s window on the third floor, making her a good choice to watch the paper screen.

Lately, though, Mrs. Sakai’s attention had been drawn to another building, to a fourth-floor apartment where garbage was piling up on the balcony.

“On the fourth floor,” she added, excitedly. “You can see it from here.”

Hiding her anxiety, Mrs. Ito redirected her neighbor to her apartment, making sure that she was not unduly distracted and was still keeping an eye on her window on the third floor.

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Sakai said, looking out her window toward Mrs. Ito’s. “There, on the fourth floor.”

“The third floor,” Mrs. Ito reminded her again, gently correcting her neighbor. “I’m on the third floor.”

Mrs. Sakai, not hearing, went on, describing the window on the fourth floor.

“I’m on the third floor,” Mrs. Ito repeated in a louder voice.

“The third floor!” Mrs. Sakai said, finally understanding.

“The third floor, the one with the black net,” Mrs. Ito said, as the two women laughed at the possibility that Mrs. Sakai had been looking at the wrong window all along.

Final Preparations


“Even if they engrave my name on a headstone,” Mr. Kinoshita said, “there’s nobody who will visit my grave.” Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times


The Obon holidays had passed, as always, without a word from any of Mr. Kinoshita’s relatives. He had stayed mostly inside, reading a book that lay next to his pillow, “Men’s H. Women’s H” — H being slang for sex.

As the oldest male, Mr. Kinoshita should have been the one to look after the family grave, but he had relinquished the duty. He had no intention of entering the family grave. He had caused his sisters and brothers too many problems with his bankruptcy, he said.

He had a son from a first marriage that had ended when the boy was a toddler — “I may have neglected him.” They exchanged New Year’s cards. Years ago, Mr. Kinoshita recalled with a smile, his son wrote that he was enjoying being a father.

“Even if they engrave my name on a headstone,” he said, “there’s nobody who will visit my grave.”

Instead, he had registered with a medical school to donate his body after death. The school would take care of everything. Every fall, it would hold a memorial service at a Buddhist temple for Mr. Kinoshita and all other donors. It would clean out his apartment. His T-shirt and his key holder, perhaps like Mrs. Ito’s books, would be swallowed up in an incinerator.

He was just worried about dying a lonely death. His organs, after all, had to prove useful.

“If you tell them to come and get a rotten body for medical research,” he said, “they won’t come.”

The Harbingers of Autumn


The Tokiwadaira danchi’s Bon dance in August. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times


As it had for decades, Tokiwadaira held its Bon dance during the last weekend of August. The late summer evenings were already noticeably cooler.

Mrs. Ito seemed troubled. Her neighbor’s confusion over the window had unsettled her. It was clear, she said, that the woman was not reliable. A day passed and Mrs. Ito thought about it some more. Over the years, her neighbor had visited her home — on the third floor — so surely she must know where Mrs. Ito lived. It was, Mrs. Ito convinced herself, just a lapse.

A few days before the dance, Mrs. Ito got a phone call from her lunch companion, Mr. Kinoshita. After being cooped up in his apartment for what seemed like years, he couldn’t wait to go the dance and checked with Madame Ito to make sure of the date. She had stopped going decades ago, after her children grew up. When the danchi swelled with children, the dance was held in a large park, not in the small plaza where it was now taking place.

“This now,” she said, “is nothing.”

People began gathering after sunset. They danced in circles around a stage in the middle of the plaza, illuminated by hanging red and white lanterns.

Mr. Kinoshita slowly pushed his silver chair through the crowd, resting on a bench under an elm tree. He faced away from the women dancing on the stage, the ones wearing the kimonos he had longed to see, just as he had turned away from the jazz singer. When introduced to someone new, he simply said, “The only thing I have left is the Eurotunnel.”

It was getting dark. Crickets were singing, the harbingers of autumn in Japan. Deeper into the danchi, toward Mrs. Ito’s apartment, the door of the dead 67-year-old man was still taped over, the smell refusing to disappear. Deeper still, past the deserted pool and the playground where her daughter used to play, Mrs. Ito’s window was visible, faintly, in the night.

The paper screen was closed, waiting for her to slide it back open in the morning. ☐


The paper screen in Mrs. Ito’s window. Credit Ko Sasaki for The New York Times


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