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So Many Japanese People Die Alone, There’s a Whole Industry Devoted to Cleaning Up After Them

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Akira Fujita, the supervisor of a crew that specializes in cleaning up after lonely deaths, prepares to enter the apartment where Hiroaki was found. Dead flies littered the home, which the crew would empty and disinfect.

As family dynamics change in Japan, more people are living by themselves — and dying alone.

Anna Fifield writes: There was a putrid smell emanating from the apartment. There was an obvious brown stain on the futon where the body had been. The futon, the clothes, the newspapers and horse-racing stubs were covered with maggots and flies.

Still, if the man had died in the summer and rotted for months in the sweltering heat, instead of drying to a shrivel as winter approached, it could have been much worse.

“I’d say this is a four out of 10,” said Akira Fujita, leader of the crew from Next, a company that specializes in cleaning up after “lonely deaths” — where people lie dead in their apartments for long periods before being discovered.

Every country has cases where elderly people die alone, but none experiences it quite like Japan, home to the world’s fastest-aging population. More than a quarter of the population is over 65, a figure set to rise to 40 percent by 2050.

Lonely death statistics are hard to come by — the central government doesn’t collect them — but regional figures show a sharp increase over the past decade. NLI Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank, estimates that about 30,000 people nationwide die this way each year.

The small apartment was full of instant-noodle bowls, soft-drink bottles and empty cans of coffee.

As the number of lonely deaths has grown, so too has the lonely-death-cleanup industry. Numerous firms offer this kind of service, and insurance companies have started selling policies to protect landlords if their tenants die inside their properties. The plans cover the cost of cleaning the apartment and compensate for loss of rent. Some will even pay for a purifying ritual in the apartment once the work is done.

The owner of this apartment in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, didn’t appear to have any such insurance, so was paying Next $2,250 to make the tiny studio apartment rentable again.

[Read the full story here, at The Washington Post]

The tenant, a 54-year-old man named Hiroaki, had fallen several months behind on his rent, so a representative from the real estate management company went by to see what was happening. (The Post agreed to withhold the deceased man’s surname, at the request of the cleaning company, to respect his privacy.)

When the representative opened the door, he found Hiroaki lying dead on the futon. He had probably been there for about four months. His body, the futon and floor around it were completely dry.

Although there were flies and maggots everywhere, the smell hadn’t been bad enough to bother neighbors or the convenience store directly below.

After the body was removed, the management company called Next. The four-man cleaning crew led by Fujita arrived with an empty truck and full-body protective wear.

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The crew from Next examines the floor for bodily fluids. The growing number of lonely deaths is the result of Japan’s aging society and changes in family structures: More people remain single and couples are having fewer, if any, children.

The first thing they removed was the futon, which was covered with brown residue and maggots and was the main source of the smell. It was vacuum-packed into a plastic bag and carted off to the truck. The men approached their work in a no-nonsense way, not wrinkling up their noses or commenting on the squalor — just getting on with the job.

[Read more, at The Washington Post]

The 200-square-foot apartment was overflowing with the detritus of a lonely life: instant-noodle bowls and soft-drink bottles, empty cans of coffee, cigarette butts in ashtrays, dozens of lighters, months’ worth of newspapers, clothes in disheveled piles.

The men filled garbage bag after garbage bag. Utility bills and other papers were stuck to the floor with dried bodily fluids, so one of the men had to use a dustpan to chip them off.

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The crew took away Hiroaki’s belongings, checked under the flooring, and scrubbed and disinfected the apartment. The process cost the apartment’s owner about $2,250. Numerous firms offer lonely-death cleaning services, and a Tokyo think tank estimates 30,000 such deaths happen each year in Japan.

The tiny bathroom was covered with black mold — the walls, the basin, inside the toilet, everything. Unidentified grime covered the doors and the kitchen sink, and all required industrial-strength cleaning liquid.

After removing all of Hiroaki’s belongings, the crew got to work stripping the wallpaper and figuring out how much of the flooring they would have to pull up.

The paperwork showed Hiroaki was … (read more)

Source: The Washington Post

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