With a population of 127 million, Japan has the most rapidly aging society on the planet. As Norimitsu Onishi reports at The New York Times, elderly individuals often live in extreme isolation, albeit only a few feet from neighbors on all sides, “trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births.” Their fate? A “lonely death” where their body may remain undiscovered in their small government apartment for days (or even years) because family is distant both physically and emotionally, and friends have all long since passed away.
The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.
Mrs. Ito, age 91, lives alone in a small government apartment built back in the 1960s for up-and-coming salary men.
She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.
So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?
Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.
“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”
Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.