National / Social Issues

The thankless task of cleaning up the aftermaths of lonely deaths in Japan

by Chris Meyers

Reuters

In March, the body of an elderly man was found on the floor of his apartment in downtown Tokyo. He had been dead for a month.

Neighbors hadn’t noticed the octogenarian’s absence. His bank made the rent payments on time, his family didn’t visit, and the only reason for the body’s discovery was the slight smell that troubled the tenant in the flat below.

In rapidly aging Japan, more people are dying alone and unnoticed in a country of 127 million, where 1 in 4 people is over 65. Looser family bonds play a role in their isolation.

For these so-called lonely deaths, families and landlords in Tokyo are increasingly turning to Hirotsugu Masuda and his cleanup crew to salvage apartments where the occupant’s body lay undiscovered for days or weeks.

“This has started becoming a bit more common in the world and it’s become more recognized that there’s this sort of job,” said Masuda, whose services are required 3-4 times a week in summer when bodies decompose faster.

When Masuda’s team turns up at the Tokyo apartment, police have taken away the corpse but bodily fluids have seeped into the floor. Flies buzz around a cooker filled with rice. Old calendars and papers are strewn in rooms untouched for years.

A special cleanup team puts garbage into plastic bags at a rubbish-strewn flat in Tokyo, where a body of an 85-year-old man was left for over a month, on March 20. | REUTERS
A special cleanup team puts garbage into plastic bags at a rubbish-strewn flat in Tokyo, where a body of an 85-year-old man was left for over a month, on March 20. | REUTERS

Workers wearing protective gear spray the apartment with insect repellent, using gloved hands to pack the trash in boxes. The six-hour exercise is conducted discreetly to avoid upsetting the neighbors. The crew tells onlookers they are moving house.

When they are done, incense and flowers are placed where the body was, with the man’s photo put where his head had been.

Masuda’s firm works almost exclusively with lonely deaths, charging between ¥81,000 and ¥341,000 depending on apartment size.

Hundreds of flies are seen at a garbage-filled flat in Tokyo, where the body of 85-year-old man was left for over a month, on March 20. | REUTERS
Hundreds of flies are seen at a garbage-filled flat in Tokyo, where the body of 85-year-old man was left for over a month, on March 20. | REUTERS

In a country where around 5 million elderly people live alone, the number of decaying bodies found in empty homes is expected to soar. Data shows victims are more likely to be male.

“There’s likely 40,000 of these cases and we think that in 10 years, it’s likely to go over 100,000 cases,” said Hideto Kone, an NGO official working on such cases.

Victims forgotten by families are not given a funeral and their remains are interred in unmarked graves.

Yoshie Fukukara, landlord of the apartment where the tenant was found dead, still finds it hard to believe.

“I didn’t think it would happen here,” the 77-year-old said.