4,000 Lonely Deaths a WeekAnd a case study:
To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.
“The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” said Takumi Nakazawa, 83, the chairman of the resident council at Mrs. Ito’s housing complex for the past 32 years.
Summer was the most dangerous season for these lonely deaths, and Mrs. Ito wasn’t taking any chances. Birthday or not, she knew that no one would call, drop a note or stop by to check on her. Born in the last year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, she never expected to live this long. One by one, family and friends had vanished or grown feeble. Ghosts, of the living and dead, now dwelled all around her in the scores of uniform buildings she and her husband had rushed to in 1960, when all of Japan seemed young.
“Now every room is mine, and I can do as I please,” Mrs. Ito said. “But it’s no good.”
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.”