Many Japanese people have heard whispers of Kodokushi, but most are completely unaware of the scale of the problem.   Literally the “lonely death”, experts estimate the number of people dying alone and unnoticed (sometimes going undiscovered for weeks or months) as a staggering 30,000 a year.  

With one of the fastest aging populations in the world and traditional family structures breaking down, Japan’s kodokushi phenomenon is becoming hard to ignore.  It is a horribly undignified, unnoticed end in an unmarked grave for these poor people.   Something has gone drastically wrong with our family and community structures when society can allow this to happen.  Where are the children, the brothers, the sisters, the friends? 

In Japan, the traditional three-generational structure of the home is breaking down.  Yasuyuki Fukukawa, a psychologist at Waseda University in Tokyo, believes that the aging population is now “beyond the capacities of family care”. Japan currently has the world’s highest proportion of older people and the largest number of centenarians.  At least 420,000 senior citizens are waiting for beds in nursing homes.  

A candle in the darkness, there is one man that is trying to help.  He goes into the homes of the dead to deal with their bodies and their affairs – an often nauseating, stomach-turning job.  In the summer months his company receives 10 requests a day.  Who would want such a job?  Especially when five years ago Koremura was a successful, high-earning stockbroker. Interviewed recently by a journalist from Slate magazine, Toru Koremura’s story is one of revelations realised through the witness of so much loneliness at the end of life.  It is also a story of the many Japanese lives that have found identity through life in career and the esteem of distant colleagues only to go unnoticed in the end:

At 27, he was earning 2 million yen ($16,000) a month as a stockbroker. He was a workaholic, money-obsessed and materially driven. He would party, spend, and try to convince himself of his happiness. Yet there was something missing, something that made the beer taste stale, the nightclubs insipid, and the sharp-salaried  suits too stiff.

It was around this time that his grandmother died.

“As a young woman she had struggled with the rest of her generation to rebuild the country after the war. She had done so much for me, but I had done so little for her,” he laments. “I didn’t even bother to get to know her, or even to say thank you.”

After her death, Koremura became more thoughtful about his own life. It struck him that his existence of continual excess and profligacy was an affront to the sacrifices of people like his grandmother, people who had given Japan peace after the war, and people who, for his entire life, he had barely noticed.

Yet in spite of his revelations, Koremura did not have the strength to change. He continued with his job as a stockbroker and continued with his drinking. But whereas before he was numbed to his profligacy, now he was painfully aware of it. His life became the tragic imitation of a good time.

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says impassively, while staring out of the windshield. “I was caught up in a routine I hated.”

His epiphany came when his current partner told him how she had lost her grandmother. Unlike Koremura’s loss, her grandmother had died alone—a kodokushi. It was seeing the deep regret in her, and accepting his own ennui, that made Koremura finally take action. He left his job as a stockbroker and set up his own removal company dedicated to the cleanup of kodokushi victims. He wanted to give something back to the generation of his grandmother, and he also wanted to change who he was. “I was ready for the prospect of change, but looking back, perhaps I wasn’t quite so ready for how different my life was to become,” he remembers.

… “Some people die of starvation, because they just don’t feed themselves,” Koremura tells me. “Some freeze to death during the winter because they cannot afford the heating and are too stubborn to ask for help. Others just die of an underlying health problem and are too far away from help to be noticed.”… “It is so important that people know what is going on here,” he says …. “Japan is a great country, but it is more than the Zen gardens and temples that the tourists see. We have problems and they need to be resolved.”

Koremura is trying to work with local government and gives the families of victims all the support his position allows. He is aware that his company is not a solution to the problem but a pragmatic response to it. He feels like he’s doing a good thing, that he’s performing a service that not many others would perform. For Koremura, the dead deserve to have their life put in order. It’s not just a physical or financial thing, he assures me—it’s also spiritual.

“When the apartment is finally emptied, it is as if a weight has been lifted, as if the dead person leaves with all his possessions,” he insists. “All my men feel it too.”

… Koremura has a very good relationship with his workers, and the camaraderie they share is very important to him. This is something he has learned since starting the company: That, as sentimental as it sounds, deep relationships are the most significant thing in his life.

 “Dead people have taught me how to live better,” he says, aware of the irony.

The situation in Japan is a particular grisly example of the result of family and community structures breaking down.  It also again illustrates the need for all of us to be aware of the growing numbers of elderly in our community who may not have family around to help them out.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...