Kodokushi - Dying Alone In Japan
The people in Japan are lonely - and sadly, many lonely people are the elderly, with an increasing number of them living alone without any family members to depend on.
Japan has the largest aging populations in the world, with 25.9% of the population aged 65 or above (according to 2014 estimates)* and the number is expected to increase to about 40% by 2060.
In 2010, it was recorded that about 11% of men who are aged 65 and above are currently living on their own and this will likely to increase to 16% by 2035. For women in the same age group, there were 20% of them living alone, and in 2035, it is expected that this will increase to 23%.
With the numbers rising, the people of Japan are facing an extremely dire social problem known as kodokushi.
What Is Kodokushi?
The term ‘kodokushi’ is used to describe the phenomenon of people dying alone and left undiscovered for an extended period of time. This phenomenon is more commonly observed in the elderly population.
These lonely deaths are usually only discovered after the smell of decayed bodies becomes so prominent that it attracts the attention of the neighbours. The length of time before a dead individual is discovered is also dependent on the season. Bodies tend to decay slower during winter time due to the cold weather and therefore, some bodies will only be discovered months after the individual has passed on.
Currently, the number of cases classified as kodokushi is approaching 30,000 per year. It is estimated that by 2040, the number of cases will increase to 200,000.
Kodokushi is becoming such a common occurrence that it has become a regular business for special cleaning companies to clear out the things in the apartments left by the deceased. Some of these apartments are in a terrible mess, and the cleaners need to clean all sorts of things such as the bodily fluids of decomposed bodies or piles of rubbish like empty food containers and beer cans.
The state of the apartments left by the deceased can tell many stories, with some looking neglected and poorly maintained as these individuals had seemingly given up hope for a better future for themselves, or are just too weak to do much on their own.
Why Are People Lonely?
Kodokushi usually happens when someone is living alone and many Japanese elderly choose to stay alone due to various reasons. These include not wanting to be a burden to their children, having an argument with their families, or some who simply do not have family because their parents and siblings have already passed on, or they had dedicated their lives to their work leaving them with no time to look for a partner or have children.
The problem is worsening and many people, especially the younger generation, are becoming very disconnected with one another and feeling isolated from society. With the advancement in technology, it has also become easier for people to be alone and yet stay sufficient. People who are lonely do not feel compelled to be ‘out there’ as they can easily entertain themselves by watching the TV, gaming or be on the internet. As a result, their social skills and confidence level can be affected and people may find it difficult to make or keep friends or look for a partner.
Changing social values and increasing competitiveness in the society have also changed the priorities of younger individuals – most needing to focused on their careers and working long hours (while sacrificing personal time) to stay employed to meet basic needs or have the money to pursuit more individualistic goals and interests.
Anxiety and depression are also becoming major problems as people are getting more and more stressed out by society’s demands and people are continuing to suppress their negative feelings as culturally in Japan, it is not a common practice to openly express one’s problems to others.
With little support from family, friends or society, some people just simply give up and grow to accept the fact that one day they may live and die alone.
Easy Solutions To Loneliness?
The increasing problem of loneliness has allowed some creative entrepreneurs to come up with services for the lonely. Some companies, such as the Client Partners, allows you to ‘rent people’ for a standard hourly rate (~3,000 yen). You can basically rent a person or a group of individuals to be whoever you want them to be – a friend to go shopping or take a we-fie with, a mom to go for your teacher parent meeting or give you some motherly advice, a person to cry at a funeral or to add to the crowd of well wishers at a wedding.
Japan also has many ‘cuddle cafes’ – which you can spend time cuddling something - from dogs, cats, bunnies, hedgehogs to even human beings. The company Soineya, is a well known Japanese brand offering some human cuddling experience. For a fee of about 3,000 yen, you can cuddle with someone for about 20 minutes. There are other extra services too (no, not the type you are thinking), and these are rather innocent and simple ones, such as pats on your back or lying your head on a girl’s knees, for an additional fee.
Such easy and widespread services, however, are only temporary solutions to a serious social problem growing in Japan. In many ways, they may be viewed as cruel alternatives, taking advantage of people at their weak and vulnerable states for a bit of profit and do not help to solve the core issues of loneliness.
Do you fear living alone?
The future is looking bleak for the younger generation, especially for people in their 30s and 40s. These individuals are at a high risk of kodokushi as they are finding it increasingly difficult to get full time jobs due to the lack of specialized skills necessary for fast paced Japan. This lowers their sense of confidence, thus causing them to be withdrawn and to feel even more isolated from society, well before they reach their golden years.
Unlike the current elderly population, whom despite battling with loneliness, are still on old pension schemes (and thus can still afford basic living expenses), people in their 30s and 40s have to face the additional challenge of supporting themselves when they are no longer able to work due to old age.
As of now, there appears to be no immediate and effective solution to this dire problem. Cases of kodokushi in Japan will continue to rise - until the government and society is able to collectively increase their efforts to address the core issues behind why more and more people are heading towards the path of loneliness.
*statistics from http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan/1431-02.htm