With one of the fastest aging populations in the world and traditional family structures breaking down, Japan’s kodokushi phenomenon is becoming harder to ignore—not that the government and the Japanese people don’t do their best to sweep it under the carpet. Inaccurate statistics abound, with confusing definitions of what is and isn’t considered kodokushi being created in the process. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were some 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013. However, other experts estimate the number is nearer 30,000 a year.
Scott North, a sociologist at Osaka University, argues that this extreme divergence could be the result of experts including some forms of suicide (of which there are around 27,000 cases a year in Japan) into the category of kodokushi. It could also be the result of bad accounting. Recently, senior Japanese bureaucrats admitted to having lost track of more than 250,000 people older than age 100. In a case that made international headlines in 2010, Sogen Kato, thought to be Tokyo’s oldest man at 111 years of age, turned out to have been mummified in his own apartment for more than 30 years.
Kato’s was an extreme case—and was likely more to do with benefit fraud than kodokushi—but it’s not unusual for those who die alone to go weeks or even months before being discovered. This is where Toru Koremura comes in.
Short, with the shaven head of a Zen monk, Koremura is 32 years old but has the soft, elastic features of a much younger man. He wears baggy white overalls that drown his frame and a shy smile that speaks of his diffidence. Seated in his messy van he is on the way to Haruki Watanabe’s apartment. While he drives he talks deliberately, with the meticulous cadence of a metronome and the pitch of a radio broadcaster.
He tells me that his company, one of only 10 in Japan, he estimates, receives some 60 requests for assistance a month, the majority of which are for kodokushi. In the summer months they receive 10 requests a day. “The bodies decompose faster in the heat,” he says matter-of-factly. He tells me his business is successful, and that although it wasn’t the job he dreamed of as a child, he’s happy with his life.
But things weren’t always this way. Five years ago Koremura was a very different person.
At 27, he was earning 2 million yen ($16,000) a month as a stockbroker. He was a workaholic, money-obsessed and materially driven. He would party, spend, and try to convince himself of his happiness. Yet there was something missing, something that made the beer taste stale, the nightclubs insipid, and the sharp-salaried suits too stiff.
It was around this time that his grandmother died.
“As a young woman she had struggled with the rest of her generation to rebuild the country after the war. She had done so much for me, but I had done so little for her,” he laments. “I didn’t even bother to get to know her, or even to say thank you.”
After her death, Koremura became more thoughtful about his own life. It struck him that his existence of continual excess and profligacy was an affront to the sacrifices of people like his grandmother, people who had given Japan peace after the war, and people who, for his entire life, he had barely noticed.
Yet in spite of his revelations, Koremura did not have the strength to change. He continued with his job as a stockbroker and continued with his drinking. But whereas before he was numbed to his profligacy, now he was painfully aware of it. His life became the tragic imitation of a good time.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says impassively, while staring out of the windshield. “I was caught up in a routine I hated.”
His epiphany came when his current partner told him how she had lost her grandmother. Unlike Koremura’s loss, her grandmother had died alone—a kodokushi. It was seeing the deep regret in her, and accepting his own ennui, that made Koremura finally take action. He left his job as a stockbroker and set up his own removal company dedicated to the cleanup of kodokushi victims. He wanted to give something back to the generation of his grandmother, and he also wanted to change who he was. “I was ready for the prospect of change, but looking back, perhaps I wasn’t quite so ready for how different my life was to become,” he remembers.
Unlike women, men seem incapable of integrating themselves into a community when they live alone
We arrive at Haruki Watanabe’s apartment by 8 a.m. Koremura’s workers are waiting for him there. They talk in hushed tones so as not to disturb the neighbors, reassuring their boss that today will not be their toughest assignment. “On a scale of one to 10,” one says, “this is a three: not too smelly and not too desperate.” They are all dressed in white industrial overalls, gas masks, gloves, and heavy rubber wellingtons. On their backs they carry tanks, filled with various disinfectants and insecticides. “There are some 40,000 different smells in the world,” says one of Koremura’s workers. “Choosing the right chemicals is no easy task.”
After a series of final checks, supportive pats, and good-humoured grimaces the team enters the flat, fully prepared to put in order the last affairs of the dead.
The flat is dim, a mustardy light barely seeping through the curtain of the living room window. The air is stale, heavy with the senescent sweetness of decay—of puss, feces, ammonia, and musty tobacco. It’s hot and hard to breathe, and the atmosphere is as thick as syrup.
“This man died of a heart attack,” says Koremura. “I can tell by the smell. I can almost always tell by the smell how someone has died.”
In the bathroom, just by the entrance, excrement is curled up at the foot of the toilet. The rest of the doorway is piled high with rubbish bags, shoes, unpaid bills, and years of domestic irresponsibility. In the living room, an amorphous mortal stain of bodily fluid has crusted onto the mattress of a crumpled camp bed; the shape of Watanabe’s body can almost be made out.
Watanabe was, at 60 years old, the average age of most male victims, and having suffered from a heart problem, he died in the manner most common to kodokushi.
“Around 90 percent of the cases I deal with are men,” Koremura says. “Unlike women, men seem incapable of integrating themselves into a community when they live alone.”
Watanabe was a child of the “boom years” and of the “Japanese dream,” and it is therefore probable that his death was linked to the faltering economy. In Japan, the identity of many businessmen, or “salarymen” as they are commonly known, is fused with that of their business. During the boom years many of these workers sacrificed family and friends for the growth of their companies. However, when the Japanese economy eventually crashed in the early ’90s, many of these salarymen lost their jobs or were forced into smaller, less prestigious roles with less social security. Having lost their status they found they had no purpose in life. Scott North argues that “the fact that most deaths are between 60 and 64 [years old] supports the idea that separation from the workplace community and inability to adapt to retirement may contribute to isolated deaths.”
Although the apartment is crammed with ephemera, it is empty of identifying belongings. There are no letters. There are no postcards. There are no family photographs, no paintings or pictures. The nicotine-stained walls are bare but for the ominous shadows of the workers, whose faint silhouettes are the dead man’s gruesome legacy. Family, so important in Japanese tradition, is absent here.