Three months ago in an apartment on the outskirts of Osaka, Japan, Haruki Watanabe died alone. For weeks his body slowly decomposed, slouched in its own fluids and surrounded by fetid, fortnight-old food. He died of self-neglect, solitude, and a suspected heart problem. At 60, Watanabe wasn’t old, nor was he especially poor. He had no friends, no job, no wife, and no concerned children. His son hadn’t spoken to him in years, nor did he want to again.
For three months no one called, no one knew, no one cared. For three months Watanabe rotted in his bedsheets, alongside pots of instant ramen and swarming cockroaches. The day that someone eventually called, he came not out of concern but out of administration. Watanabe had run out of money, and his bank had stopped paying the rent. The exasperated landlord, Toru Suzuki, had rung and rung, but no one had picked up. Sufficiently angry, he made the trip from his own home, in downtown Osaka, to the quiet suburb where his lodger lived.
First, there was the smell, a thick, noxious sweetness oozing from beneath the door frame. Second, there was the sight, the shape of a mortally slumped corpse beneath urine-soaked bedsheets. Third, there was the reality: Suzuki had come to collect his dues but had instead found his tenant’s dead body.
Disgusted, angry, but mostly shocked that this could happen to him, the landlord rang the police. The police came; they investigated with procedural dispassion and declared the death unsuspicious. This wasn’t suicide in the traditional sense, they said, but it did seem that the deceased had wanted to die. They’d seen it before, and it was an increasingly common occurrence throughout Japan: a single man dying, essentially, from loneliness.
They noted down what was required by their forms, wrapped up the body in officialdom, tied it with red tape, and removed it amid gawps and gags of inquisitive neighbors. The police then departed for the cemetery, where, because no family member had stepped forward to claim the body, they would intern Watanabe in an unmarked grave alongside the rest of Japan’s forgotten dead.
Suzuki was now left to his festering property and precarious financials. He was concerned. He didn’t know who to call or how to deal with the situation. In Japan, suicide can dramatically reduce the value of a property, and although this wasn’t suicide, his neighbors had seen enough; the gossip would spread fast. He heard whispers of kodokushi, a word bandied about since the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when thousands of elderly Japanese were relocated to different residences and started dying alone, ostracized or isolated from family and friends. But what did that really mean for Suzuki, and how was he going to deal with it? Like most Japanese, he had heard of the “lonely death” but had not really believed in it; he certainly didn’t know what to do in such circumstances. So he turned to the Internet, and after hours of fruitless searching found a company called Risk-Benefit, run by a man named Toru Koremura.
With no other options, he picked up the phone and gave the company a call.
With one of the fastest aging populations in the world and traditional family structures breaking down, Japan’s kodokushi phenomenon is becoming harder to ignore—not that the government and the Japanese people don’t do their best to sweep it under the carpet. Inaccurate statistics abound, with confusing definitions of what is and isn’t considered kodokushi being created in the process. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were some 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013. However, other experts estimate the number is nearer 30,000 a year.
Scott North, a sociologist at Osaka University, argues that this extreme divergence could be the result of experts including some forms of suicide (of which there are around 27,000 cases a year in Japan) into the category of kodokushi. It could also be the result of bad accounting. Recently, senior Japanese bureaucrats admitted to having lost track of more than 250,000 people older than age 100. In a case that made international headlines in 2010, Sogen Kato, thought to be Tokyo’s oldest man at 111 years of age, turned out to have been mummified in his own apartment for more than 30 years.
Kato’s was an extreme case—and was likely more to do with benefit fraud than kodokushi—but it’s not unusual for those who die alone to go weeks or even months before being discovered. This is where Toru Koremura comes in.
Short, with the shaven head of a Zen monk, Koremura is 32 years old but has the soft, elastic features of a much younger man. He wears baggy white overalls that drown his frame and a shy smile that speaks of his diffidence. Seated in his messy van he is on the way to Haruki Watanabe’s apartment. While he drives he talks deliberately, with the pitch of a radio broadcaster.
He tells me that his company, one of only 10 in Japan, he estimates, receives some 60 requests for assistance a month, the majority of which are for kodokushi. In the summer months they receive 10 requests a day. “The bodies decompose faster in the heat,” he says matter-of-factly. He tells me his business is successful, and that although it wasn’t the job he dreamed of as a child, he’s happy with his life.
But things weren’t always this way. Five years ago Koremura was a very different person.
At 27, he was earning 2 million yen ($16,000) a month as a stockbroker. He was a workaholic, money-obsessed and materially driven. He would party, spend, and try to convince himself of his happiness. Yet there was something missing, something that made the beer taste stale, the nightclubs insipid, and the sharp-salaried suits too stiff.
It was around this time that his grandmother died.
“As a young woman, she had struggled with the rest of her generation to rebuild the country after the war. She had done so much for me, but I had done so little for her,” he laments. “I didn’t even bother to get to know her, or even to say thank you.”
After her death, Koremura became more thoughtful about his own life. It struck him that his existence of continual excess and profligacy was an affront to the sacrifices of people like his grandmother, people who had given Japan peace after the war, and people who, for his entire life, he had barely noticed.
Yet in spite of his revelations, Koremura did not have the strength to change. He continued with his job as a stockbroker and continued with his drinking. But whereas before he was numbed to his profligacy, now he was painfully aware of it. His life became the tragic imitation of a good time.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he says impassively, while staring out of the windshield. “I was caught up in a routine I hated.”
His epiphany came when his current partner told him how she had lost her grandmother. Unlike Koremura’s loss, her grandmother had died alone—a kodokushi. It was seeing the deep regret in her, and accepting his own ennui, that made Koremura finally take action. He left his job as a stockbroker and set up his own removal company dedicated to the clean-up of kodokushi victims. He wanted to give something back to the generation of his grandmother, and he also wanted to change who he was. “I was ready for the prospect of change, but looking back, perhaps I wasn’t quite so ready for how different my life was to become,” he remembers.
We arrive at Haruki Watanabe’s apartment by 8 a.m. Koremura’s workers are waiting for him there. They talk in hushed tones so as not to disturb the neighbors, reassuring their boss that today will not be their toughest assignment. “On a scale of one to 10,” one says, “this is a three: not too smelly and not too desperate.” They are all dressed in white industrial overalls, gas masks, gloves, and heavy rubber wellingtons. On their backs they carry tanks, filled with various disinfectants and insecticides. “There are some 40,000 different smells in the world,” says one of Koremura’s workers. “Choosing the right chemicals is no easy task.”
After a series of final checks, supportive pats, and good-humoured grimaces the team enters the flat, fully prepared to put in order the last affairs of the dead.
The flat is dim, a mustardy light barely seeping through the curtain of the living room window. The air is stale, heavy with the senescent sweetness of decay—of puss, feces, ammonia, and musty tobacco. It’s hot and hard to breathe, and the atmosphere is as thick as syrup.
“This man died of a heart attack,” says Koremura. “I can tell by the smell. I can almost always tell by the smell how someone has died.”
In the bathroom, just by the entrance, excrement is curled up at the foot of the toilet. The rest of the doorway is piled high with rubbish bags, shoes, unpaid bills, and years of domestic irresponsibility. In the living room, an amorphous mortal stain of bodily fluid has crusted onto the mattress of a crumpled camp bed; the shape of Watanabe’s body can almost be made out.
Watanabe was, at 60 years old, the average age of most male victims, and having suffered from a heart problem, he died in the manner most common to kodokushi.
“Around 90 percent of the cases I deal with are men,” Koremura says. “Unlike women, men seem incapable of integrating themselves into a community when they live alone.”
Watanabe was a child of the “boom years” and of the “Japanese dream,” and it is therefore probable that his death was linked to the faltering economy. In Japan, the identity of many businessmen, or “salarymen” as they are commonly known, is fused with that of their business. During the boom years many of these workers sacrificed family and friends for the growth of their companies. However, when the Japanese economy eventually crashed in the early ’90s, many of these salarymen lost their jobs or were forced into smaller, less prestigious roles with less social security. Having lost their status they found they had no purpose in life. Scott North argues that “the fact that most deaths are between 60 and 64 [years old] supports the idea that separation from the workplace community and inability to adapt to retirement may contribute to isolated deaths.”
Although the apartment is crammed with ephemera, it is empty of identifying belongings. There are no letters. There are no postcards. There are no family photographs, no paintings or pictures. The nicotine-stained walls are bare but for the ominous shadows of the workers, whose faint silhouettes are the dead man’s gruesome legacy. Family, so important in Japanese tradition, is absent here.
In Japan, the traditional three-generational structure of the home is breaking down, as space in the big cities decreases and the costs of maintaining longer-living relatives rises. Yasuyuki Fukukawa, a psychologist at Waseda University in Tokyo, believes that the aging population is now “beyond the capacities of family care.” Today, 1 in 5 Japanese is over the age of 65. Private health care is expensive, and there is a shortage of state-provided facilities for the elderly: some 420,000 senior citizens are waiting for beds in nursing homes. Those who cannot find or afford help do not wish to burden other family members, who may not live nearby and may be struggling themselves. As a result, they choose to live alone, where, unable to access the level of assistance they need, they often die undignified deaths.
“Some people die of starvation, because they just don’t feed themselves,” Koremura tells me. “Some freeze to death during the winter because they cannot afford the heating and are too stubborn to ask for help. Others just die of an underlying health problem and are too far away from help to be noticed.”
Further into the apartment, the living room is stacked high with clutter and indolence. Putrid plastic bags, filled with bottles and brittle ramen noodles, line the room’s walls, like sandbags during a flood. On a low table by the window, a bowl of half-eaten food speaks of a final meal, and an unlit cigarette amid a bouquet of stubs suggests a last smoke. There are three watches on the dresser—all have stopped—and on the wall is a calendar with something scribbled under Nov. 21, 2014: the last date he cared about, the date after which the mess first started.
This mess, now piled many feet high and many feet deep, is being collected, photographed, and disposed of by Koremura’s workers. The bed is wrapped up in thick cellophane and carried gingerly out of the apartment to be incinerated. The TV is switched off after months of playing unacknowledged entertainment. Oxidised pans are chiselled from their wall hooks. Chemicals are deployed to kill the dense mortal musk, and the men rummage through Watanabe’s drawers, throwing moth-eaten socks and congealed underpants into plastic bags while setting the more valuable items aside. “Normally these more costly items would be given to the family, but because this man hasn’t got one, they will be given to the landlord in order to repay some of his debt,” Koremura says.
Little by little the room begins to empty. The team dispenses with Watanabe’s life in order to tidy up his death. They work through piss and putrefaction like an accountant through difficult numbers. And they do it without disgust, hesitation, or judgment.
“In the beginning it was a difficult job,” Koremura tells me as we leave the flat and walk down the outdoor passageway. At the sight of death, he would gag and vomit, and so would many of his men. He began to shave his hair because his shampoo could no longer mask the smell of putrefaction. He would sit for hours, contemplating the tragedies of his clients, wondering whether there was anything more he could do. He began to question his decision to change jobs, his own mental fortitude, and his fragile stomach, and most of all he began to question the nature of existence.
But as death became the norm, his reactions to it became less dramatic. He remembers the point at which he knew he could no longer be shocked by anything. A few years ago he received a call from a father whose son had just committed suicide. The young man was a hikikomori—a shut-in who had barely left his room in months. He was found electrocuted to death, a cable wrapped around his burnt flesh.
“When the father spoke to me he did so very dispassionately, there was no trace of emotion in his voice,” Koremura says incredulously. “He spoke to me as if it were an ordinary cleaning job.”
It was only when the father left the phone and went into his son’s room to give Koremura more details that he broke down.
“I’m so sorry, my son, I’m so sorry,” the father began whimpering, according to Koremura. “If only I would have known how sad you were—maybe I could have helped you.”
Meanwhile, Koremura stayed on the line in bewilderment. When the father got back on the phone some five minutes later, he was as before: aloof and sharp, with no acknowledgment of his outburst. He told Koremura he would see him at noon the next day and hung up.
“It was horrifying,” Koremura says. “After that, I knew I could, and would have to, handle anything.”
It’s now 12 p.m. and Koremura excuses himself for his lunch break. Walking toward the car, he moves slowly, as if wading against a strong current of water. He puffs on a cigarette and seems pensive. “Kodokushi probably wouldn’t happen in Brazil,” he says with a wry smile. “They’re too happy over there.”
He takes one final draw, stubs it out, and then shakes his head knowingly, “Come on. Let’s go and find a café.”
As we drive out of Watanabe’s neighborhood, Koremura tells me that some jobs can take days, even weeks, to complete. “With this house we will be done in a day or so,” he says. The cost of the work depends on the size of the dwelling and the level of the mess, but prices fluctuate between the $1,000–$3,000 mark. He has been in all sorts of houses and has found any number of strange and interesting things, from huge wads of cash to mummified cats. “The job never ceases to amaze.”
Unable to find a decent restaurant, we settle for a KFC. Inside, the combination of fried chicken, death, and Americana doesn’t go well. The server’s beam seems insensitive; the customers’ desire for wings, tasteless; the garish money-saving promotions, cheerless; and the heavy reek of batter, brutally banal. The sheer ordinariness of the situation is depressing. Koremura, however, chomps happily on his chicken legs, hardened to the absurdities of life and death.
Through a gulp of his lemonade he tells me that kodokushi is not considered a real problem: “A lot of people in Japanese society have heard of the phenomenon, but treat it as if it were imaginary. If they ignore it, it isn’t real.”
Most of the customers that surround us are dressed in dull corduroys and gray sport jackets. They rifle through cardboard buckets, share pleasant platitudes, and frown at their own affairs. Koremura wears his white overalls and an inscrutable expression. To the rest of the world, he must look like a painter; an ordinary man with an ordinary profession, stopping for an ordinary lunch. Only the heavy smell of battered chicken conceals the stale tobacco and sweet rot on his person.
“Kodokushi is not just a problem among the elderly. It is also a problem among younger people,” he tells me. According to the Japanese government there are some 700,000 hikikomori in Japan, young people who are completely isolated and afraid to reintegrate into society. Yuichi Hattori, a psychologist specialising in the treatment of shut-ins, argues that these people will increase the numbers of kodokushi deaths in the future. Mental illness is still a taboo subject in Japan, and those affected by it stand to face social stigma if they try to seek help. As Hattori argues, they will stay in their rooms, suffer in silence, and will die alone when their parents are no longer there to help them.
“It is so important that people know what is going on here,” he says, wiping his mouth. “Japan is a great country, but it is more than the Zen gardens and temples that the tourists see. We have problems and they need to be resolved.”
Koremura is trying to work with local government and gives the families of victims all the support his position allows. He is aware that his company is not a solution to the problem but a pragmatic response to it. He feels like he’s doing a good thing, that he’s performing a service that not many others would perform. For Koremura, the dead deserve to have their life put in order. It’s not just a physical or financial thing, he assures me—it’s also spiritual.
“When the apartment is finally emptied, it is as if a weight has been lifted, as if the dead person leaves with all his possessions,” he insists. “All my men feel it too.”
He denies being a religious man, however—it is just a sense he gets when a job is done. A sense that, whether grounded in reality or not, helps him to continue doing good work for his clients.
We leave KFC and head back to the van. Koremura needs to be back at the apartment to check on his men. As we get into the car, he lights a cigarette and inhales deeply. He appears calm, and the shy smile returns to his face.
“You know, at the end of the day we go to the public baths to clean ourselves. It’s something my men and I always do, like a ritual,” he says.
Koremura has a very good relationship with his workers, and the camaraderie they share is very important to him. This is something he has learned since starting the company: that, as sentimental as it sounds, deep relationships are the most significant thing in his life.
“Dead people have taught me how to live better,” he says, aware of the irony.
We arrive back at Watanabe’s apartment, and Koremura leaves to brief his men. Tomorrow he has a job in Tokyo.
Down at street level the rest of the neighborhood carries on as normal, oblivious to what’s going on inside Haruki Watanabe’s home. Vendors sell, delivery men deliver, taxi drivers pick up and drop off, children laugh and play—and all the while workers dressed in gas masks carry out the last of Haruki Watanabe’s mortal remains.