Lonely Deaths

Report from the News section of The Week

Noriyuki Kamesawa’s job is not a happy one, says Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times. Based in Osaka, he makes his living cleaning up after a kodokushi. The term, meaning “lonely death’ refers to the growing number of people who die alone in their apartments, and go undiscovered for weeks or months. Often, it iS only when a neighbour reports a foul odour that the body is found. Until a few years ago, Kamesawa’s company dealt with such cases only rarely; now, he handles about a 100 month, fifth of which are suicides. Partly, the rise is down to Japan’s ageing society: more people are living and dying alone, in big cities, with dwindling opportunities for human contact but it’s also product of digitalisation. “It used to be that everyone read a newspaper, and if it wasn’t picked up from your post box, neighbours knew something was wrong,” Kamesawa explains. “Now everyone reads on a screen.” The clean-ups can be unspeakably grim: the sights and smells that greet the cleaners are horrifying; their protective suits are stifling in the summer when temperatures can reach 40°C; and the stench of decay lingers in their hair and clothes. But they approach the task with solemnity lighting incense on arrival, and saying a prayer for the spirit of the person whose remains they are about to clear. “When started doing this, I used to feel a little upset by it,” says Kamesawa. “But this is our job. Even [the relatives] do not want to see this scene. We close down the space where the deceased person lived. We make it empty. That is how we pay our respects.”

The Week, 4 December 2021