A series of incidents in which people who had received no help from others citizens or local governments and apparently died alone raises concerns that human ties in Japanese society are growing increasingly thin and that the nation’s social safety net has serious holes.

On Feb. 20, a couple in their 60s and their 30-something son were found dead in their apartment in Saitama City. They appeared to have been dead for about two months. No food was found in their home and only several yen were found.

They had failed to pay the rent for six months, and gas and electricity to their apartment had been turned off. The three had not registered their residency with the city.

On Feb. 23, it was reported that a 45-year-old mother and her 4-year-old mentally disabled son were found dead Feb. 13 in their apartment in Tachikawa, western Tokyo. Autopsies showed that they had been dead about two months. Apparently the mother died of a subarachroid hemorrhage and subsequently the son starved to death. The Tachikawa city government, which used to deliver diapers for the son, lost contact with the two in the new year. But it did not occur to city officials that the mother may have died.

On March 7, a woman in her 90s and her daughter in her 60s were found dead in their Tachikawa apartment, just a few minutes’ walk from the scene where the mother and her son were found dead. Mail was seen having piled up in their post.

These and similar cases have highlighted two serious problems. First, even when neighbors notice something out of the ordinary, when utilities turn off gas and electricity supplies due to residents’ failure to pay their bills and when postal workers notice mail going unclaimed, they hesitate to notify local authorities, possibly fearing that to do so would constitute an intrusion of privacy.

Second, some people who are experiencing difficulties do not want to ask neighbors or local governments for help. They may believe that it would be shameful to do so. And they may not know that even people who have not registered their residence can get public livelihood assistance (seikatsu hogo).

To help strengthen the fraying social safety net, local governments, at least, should establish a system with utility companies and Japan Post in which these entities notify them when households display signs of an unusual situation. And individual citizens should be encouraged to do the same.

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