A society fragmenting in “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner”

Artyom Somov, “Dying Alone: Kodokushi, Japan’s epidemic of isolation through the eyes of a ‘lonely death’ cleaner” (RT.com, March 2019)

Since 1945, the increasing Westernisation of Japanese society – and with it, longer life expectancies, smaller families, increased urbanisation and housing shortages, combined with labour mobility (often involving long commuter journeys) – has encouraged a weakening of family ties with the result that more and more elderly people are living alone. Of course, conservative social attitudes toward the role of women in caring for the elderly and government policies (often governed by such attitudes – because the dominant political parties in power have been socially conservative) with regard to caring for the aged can also be blamed for the rise in the number of aged people living alone. Another phenomenon, mentioned briefly in the documentary about to be reviewed, is the massive infrastructure works undertaken by the Japanese government in the 1950s and 1960s which employed thousands of young men from the countryside to help repair cities devastated by war; now, after 50 or more years later, these men have reached retirement age but have nowhere to go. They long ago lost contact with their families, their wives or partners are long gone and their children have gone as well. With more aged people living on their own, more aged people are dying alone: the phenomenon has come to be known as kodokushi (lonely death).

Somov’s documentary follows a man who runs his own cleaning company specialising in cleaning the homes of kodokushi people. The majority of kodokushi people seem to be elderly men living on their own. The manager admits he used to be a musician but social and family pressure – and the decline and death of his grandmother – directed him to running a specialist kodokushi cleaning company that cleans the homes of kodokushi people and removes their possessions. While the bodies have already been taken away, the excretions (and often the maggots and maggot shells) from rotting bodies have to be cleaned up. The company manager and employees do a thorough job clearing away possessions and storing them in the company warehouse, and cleaning the home. The possessions – especially any dolls, which in Japanese tradition may be inhabited by the souls of the dead – are later prayed for and blessed by a Buddhist monk, so that they are free to be resold to recycling companies or secondhand. (The kodokushi company earns its money from recycling or selling the items it collects from the homes of kodokushi people.)

The film crew also visits a restaurant owner whose patrons are mainly elderly people living on their own. The owner also runs a cottage for lonely elderly men. The film crew visit a hospital where medical workers show elderly people how to keep their joints flexible. A woman volunteer – we do not know who she works for – goes on one of her weekly trips to see an aged gentleman to make sure he is using his foot ointment and is eating and drinking healthily. Apart from this, we do not know how Japanese society generally and government institutions in particular are dealing with the issue of elderly people who have no families to rely on and are living on their own.

The sad isolation that afflicts Japanese society in so many different ways – the phenomenon of hikikomori (young people who shut themselves away from society from months or years on end) is well known – is present throughout the documentary. The pressures of a socially conformist and hierarchical society, overlaid by Westernisation / Americanisation and the utilitarian values adopted by past governments that view people as little more than robots, have resulted in a highly atomised society where social links not related to work have become very fragile. It seems that the current government under Shinzo Abe (whose grandfather Nobosuke Nishi was once also prime minister and had a controversial past) is ideologically at a loss as to how to resolve such social and political issues that its political conservative predecessors had a major hand in creating.