The welfare ministry plans to begin Japan's first fact-finding survey possibly as early as this summer of municipalities' responses to unclaimed bodies and remains.

Elderly people living alone are increasing across the country. Against the backdrop, municipalities often struggle to find relatives of people who died alone. There are also cases in which relatives refuse to receive the bodies of such people.

The ministry will conduct hearings with municipalities and experts, aiming to identify key issues and create a list of model cases.

In Japan, the proportion of elderly people living alone among overall aged persons aged 65 or over came to 22.1% for women and 15.0% for men, according to the Cabinet Office's 2023 white paper on the aging society.

The share is forecast to rise to 24.5% for women and 20.8% for men in 2040, around which the country's elderly population is seen peaking. The year's population of such people is forecast at 8.96 million.

Related laws stipulate that if no recipient can be found for a body or if the body remains unclaimed, the municipality where the death occurred is responsible for cremating the body.

Municipal authorities conduct inquiries to locate relatives and urge them to collect such bodies. In cases where relatives cannot be located or refuse to claim the bodies, municipalities will cremate them and store the ashes.

Municipal governments can decide at their discretion specifics of the procedures, such as the timing of cremation and places to store the ashes.

The number of unclaimed remains stored by municipalities stood at some 60,000 as of October 2021, according to an internal affairs ministry survey released in 2023.

While some municipalities advocate for the central government to establish uniform standards for handling unclaimed bodies, the welfare ministry remains cautious due to varying regional and religious factors.