How Japan Deals with the Remains of Your Days

Office Lady leaving Tokyo Apartment (Photo by Karen Kasmauski/Corbis via Getty Images)

Japan’s declining birthrate and its shrinking elderly population has created the perfect conditions for a booming business: the clean-out industry.

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Adam Minter reports on how, perhaps after your “lonely death” where there is no one left to mourn you, someone has to clean out your apartment and deal with all your stuff. Japanese culture, with its bent toward reuse and recycling, is selling shipping container after shipping container of second-hand goods to places like Cambodia and the Philippines, where the quality associated with Japanese manufacturing puts the goods in high demand.

The roots of the problem reach back to the country’s post-World War II boom years, which produced levels of consumption unprecedented in historically conservative Japan. But that lifestyle burst with Japan’s asset bubble in the early 1990s. The resulting economic insecurity is leading young Japanese people to put off marriage and children—or skip them altogether. What’s left is one of the world’s oldest societies, millions of junk-filled homes, and a dearth of heirs.

Han is kneeling in the widow’s kitchen, surrounded by cardboard boxes filled with salable goods such as dishes, lacquerware, and half-full bottles of Scotch and sake. She’s 50 years old, has a round, youthful face framed by a short bob of hair, and wears a tan apron with two large pockets to carry pens, markers, and tape. Her family is ethnically Korean, but Han’s lived in Japan all her life. She used to belong to the cabin crew of Japan Airlines, and it shows: She works through the widow’s apartment with the ruthless efficiency of a flight attendant collecting meal trays. But she also exudes a sisterly warmth, offering the widow intermittent advice on dealing with grief. Personability is an essential quality for a clean-out professional. Competition is stiff, and jobs are often won on the amount of empathy the would-be cleaner is able to project. When she’s not cleaning out, or selling the property she just removed, Han travels around Japan bidding for jobs. It’s next to impossible to pin her down for even a meal.

Read the story