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Lack of strong ties spurs business of dying alone

by Michael Hoffman

New businesses arising to meet new needs tell us much about the times we live in. A cleaning company named Green Heart, for example, thrives on a peculiar expertise. Its website explains: “Sadly, it often happens that unclaimed bodies go long unnoticed. In summer after two days, in winter after four or five, decomposition sets in, accompanied by odors surpassing the imagination.” This sort of cleanup is Green Heart’s specialty. In the seven years since its founding in 2005, its custom has doubled. It is open 24 hours a day, and hardly a day goes by, it says, without a commission.

Traditional Japanese culture celebrated its hermits — poets and enlightened ones who, awakened to the futility of worldly attachments, cast them off and retired to mountain huts to commune with the infinite. Modern reclusion is different. Neither enlightenment nor poetry figures in it, and it’s a moot point whether individuals are casting off the world or the world them. Either way, it’s spreading. The average number of people per Tokyo household is 1.99, the Metro government reported last month. In 1957 it was 4.09; in 1966, 2.97. The dip below 2 is a first, and indicates more people living alone than ever before.

Why should “unclaimed bodies go long unnoticed”? Because living alone can mean dying alone. The weekly Josei Jishin takes up the theme, chronicling a cluster of recent deaths that, were the chemistry of decomposition less malodorous than it is, would likely have gone much longer unnoticed than they did. As it happens, the episodes the magazine describes involve people dying not quite alone but in pairs, a reminder that solitude need not be absolute to be grimly isolating.

Two cases occurred in the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa. The first came to light in February, the second less than a month later. On Feb. 13 the bodies of a 45-year-old woman and her 4-year-old son were found in their apartment. The condominium had been built for privacy and security. The walls were thick and the locks tight. The neighbors hardly knew them and scarcely noticed their absence. They had been dead at least a month when discovered. The mother had apparently suffered a brain hemorrhage. The child had a mental disability and could neither call for help nor feed himself, though there was food in the refrigerator. He starved to death.

March 7 brought macabre echoes. In another condo in the same neighborhood, the bodies of a 95-year-old woman and her 63-year-old daughter were found. They too had been dead about a month. The mother had been suffering from dementia. In Sapporo around the same time two sisters in their 40s were found frozen to death in their apartment. One of the sisters had a mental disability; the other had been nursing her.

“Sometimes the family will refuse to accept the body,” a Green Heart staffer tells Josei Jishin. “They’ll get an estimate of the costs involved and say, ‘Too expensive.’ Or, ‘Even in death he’s a nuisance.’ I’ve heard family members say terrible things.”

Cold, cold world. In the swelling postwar economy, cities sprouted “New Town” bedroom communities. One in Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture, opened in 1968. In the five years from 2005 to 2009, 40 percent of the deaths occurring there were “solitary deaths.” A “New Town” in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture, was once considered the biggest in Asia. It’s dwindled now to half its former size — current population 8,600 — and one revealing feature of life there is the unwillingness of residents to enter their names and contact information on a list drawn up to facilitate rescue in case of emergency — only 10 percent have done so.

Such is the evolution toward privacy of a nation that traditionally knew no such concept and, at the time of its 19th-century opening to the West, had no word for it — to this day the Japanized English word has to do. What, one wonders, of kizuna, the sympathetic bonds that unite people and were supposedly demonstrated and rekindled as the disasters of March 11, 2011, unfolded?

People — modern people — need both, apparently. Kizuna that are too tight breed a craving for privacy, which, when pushed to the extremes of loneliness, send us out in pursuit of the ties that bind. The weekly Spa! recently had an interesting take on that. Young Japanese, it finds, are increasingly converting to Islam. “There are no hard statistics, but I’d guess one Japanese a day enters the Muslim faith,” the magazine hears from a Tokyo mosque official. Comments from some converts suggest motivations more social than strictly religious. Or perhaps the distinction is artificial.

“One of the attractions,” said a convert in his 30s, “is the strong ties (kizuna) among Muslims. Since I converted I feel like I’m part of a large and growing family.”

A 27-year-old woman talks of how the Islamic ban on pork has stimulated her culinary inventiveness, and adds, “Fellow Muslims are so easy to get close to. I had no clothes suitable for prayers; I sent out a tweet on Twitter, and Muslims I’d never met sent me clothes.”

“When I said I was single” — this from a 29-year-old man — “everyone started searching for a partner for me, and I was able to marry. Muslims have a very strong social network — more to be counted on than a dating website.”

The Kasukabe “New Town” is the scene of an interesting experiment in kizuna-fostering. With its population dwindling and its vacancy rate up, the municipality is subsidizing college students who move in. There’s one condition: They must interact with the aging residents. Group exercise sessions and communal meals are a visible result. “I approached a woman in her 70s who’s living alone,” a 26-year-old nursing student tells Josei Jishin. “I said, ‘I live here, drop in anytime,’ and I wrote down my phone number and room number. Will she take me up on it, I wonder?”