Travel back with me, reader, 60 years in time. It’s 1953. Two booms are in full swing: one economic, the other reproductive; the first fueled largely by the Korean War, the second, in part, by the first. Among the 2 million babies born in Japan that year — nearly twice as many as were born this year — were two who lately, approaching 60, were the center of an acrimonious court clash — which is not, except peripherally, the subject of this story.

The two were born on the same day — March 30, 1953 — at the same hospital: the Sanikukai in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. Back then, there was as much pressure on maternity hospitals as there is today on senior-citizen facilities. Demand outpaced supply. Maternity ward nurses were run off their feet, as are caregivers for the elderly today.

Babies, except to their loved ones, all look pretty much alike. Clerical errors happen, mix-ups occur. Two babies get mistaken for each other and go to the wrong families. It happened fairly often in the 1950s, says Josei Seven magazine. Most of the mistakes were spotted quickly and set right. Not so for Takeshi Ito and Naoki Takeda (to borrow the pseudonyms Josei Seven uses). They were well into their 50s before they learned that they were not who they thought they were.

Imagine having lived your life with an identity not your own. Takeshi was born to a prosperous family — the Takedas — but grew up as an Ito, in dire poverty. His “father” died when Takeshi was 2. His “mother,” on welfare, struggled to raise Takeshi and his two “brothers.” She was a loving mother and did her best, but poverty is poverty — a family of four living in one small room, their only electrical appliance a radio. Takeshi dropped out of junior high school and worked at factories to help support his mother. He was grateful to her. She had protected him from the backbiting of those who were quick to notice how little he looked like the others. “Never mind,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Naoki Takeda — Ito by birth — seems to have got the better deal. He grew up the eldest of four boys, his “father” a successful entrepreneur. There were no money problems. Naoki got a solid education and went on to start his own business, a real estate firm.

But his younger “brothers” resented him. Naoki looked nothing like them. He was the black sheep of the family, never quite fitting in. Their mother died in 1999, their father in 2007. Naoki, as the supposed eldest son, got the largest share of the inheritance. Resentment deepened. In 2008, the younger brothers got hold of one of Naoki’s cigarette butts and had it tested for DNA. The result confirmed their long-held suspicion: Naoki was not a Takeda. Court case followed court case, ascending all the way to the Supreme Court — which ruled that, DNA notwithstanding, “a parent-child relationship cannot be denied.”

Not satisfied, the brothers investigated Sanikukai Hospital’s records and uncovered Takeshi Ito. Here, they insisted, was the rightful heir. That sparked fresh lawsuits, one of which ordered Sanikukai to pay Takeshi ¥32 million in compensation

There is much nostalgia today for the 1950s and ’60s. Japan then was a struggling country. The war had destroyed it. But the war was over, reconstruction was underway, and daily life had about it a vigor — or maybe a better word is “normality” — not much in evidence at present. The age-old human relationships of family, community and friendship were intact and thriving. People counted on them and drew strength from them. The story of Takeshi and Naoki, anomalous in its own time, seems less so in ours, to the extent that its underlying theme is estrangement, alienation and rootlessness.

In 2005, for the first time in Japan, single-person households outnumbered the time-honored bourgeois stereotype household composed of dad, mom and two kids. By 2010, single-person households were 32 percent of the nationwide total. Never in Japanese history have individuals been so alone. Being alone brings freedom but also loneliness — especially at this festive time of year. What to do? How to cope? Well, you can rent a friend. Seriously.

Writer Michiko Matsuda tried it, several times, with mixed results that she discusses in a piece for the weekly Shukan Shincho. She’s 64. Divorced many years ago, she raised her only daughter singlehandedly. When the daughter left to get married, Matsuda became a hitorisama — a person living alone. She soon discovered it was not for her. She all but lost the will to live, but what could she do? Children leave home; that’s life. Her friends are too busy with their own lives to actively sympathize. One day she happened to spot a poster advertising a benriya — a sort of all-purpose convenience establishment. Whatever you want done (within certain limits, presumably), they’ll do for you. She wanted friendship. Many people do, she learned on inquiry. Rent-a-friend, rent-a-date. In that sense at least, she is not alone.

Three hours of companionship sells for about ¥10,000. One young woman took her for a drive, another to the zoo. That was nice, but the three hours are soon up and you’re back in your own abyss. Once she got very lucky — she netted a companion who understood her. Her own child had just married; she too was alone. They shared stories, consoled each other, shed tears, but all too soon the time was up: ¥10,000, please.

If hitorisama life is hard at 64, imagine it at 86. Earlier this month the National Police Agency reported an alarming spike in shoplifting by seniors. In some cases it’s poverty; in most, it’s loneliness. Shukan Bunshun magazine meets an 86-year-old chronic shoplifter. She lives alone in Ibaragi Prefecture and frequents large shopping malls, filching small items. Her husband died 12 years ago. She has a grown child she hasn’t seen in years. “I have nothing else to do,” she says. “This is the only thing that relieves the gloom.”

She got caught once but aroused pity and was let go. What if her child and grandchild get to hear of it? That would be terrible. “But,” she says, “the tension, maybe, is what keeps me from going senile.”

Takeshi Takeda — formerly Ito — is now a rich man, and he’s gained three brothers besides, with whom he’s grown friendly; but at a press conference following the court ruling he said, evidently shaken, that he wished he could go back to the beginning and live his life over again. This time he’d live his real life. His circumstances are strange but the feeling is probably not. How many others, musing over their lives on this last Sunday of the year, would say the same?


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