The business of dying alone
May 12, 2017
Japan is aging rapidly -- people over the age of 65 already number about 34 million, or one-quarter of the population. In parallel with this trend is a growing number of seniors dying alone. And it's creating a profession of helpers, hired to clear up what's been left behind.
In one apartment, the body of an 86-year-old man was discovered. He had been dead for 2 weeks.
He had accumulated piles of pictures and travel pamphlets.
A clean-up crew arrived to dispose of his belongings.
It's led by Kenji Mikuni, who specializes in cleaning up the belongings of the deceased. He's been doing this for 4 years.
"It is sad. I have mixed feelings when I think about him dying alone," says Mikuni.
Of the 168 requests Mikuni got for cleanups last year, 20 percent were cases of a senior dying alone.
"It's often assumed that dying alone happens only to people with no family or friends, but that's not always the case," explains Mikuni.
"Many of the deceased had family living nearby. But I often got the feeling they rarely spoke with each other."
After cleaning up the old man's room, Mikuni couldn't help wanting to keep some of his things to return to the family.
That's not always without caution, however.
"It might actually hurt the family if I return these things, because of problems between them," says Mikuni.
He decided to visit the old man's son.
The son had said he had no personal attachment to his father. He authorized Mikuni to dispose of everything.
Their relationship soured about 30 years ago, after the father's business failed, the son explained.
"Since we lost touch, I have no memories to recall from looking at these things," said the son.
"My father always had his own way. In the end he died alone, which was his choice."
The man relented a little, and decided to hold onto some of the photos.
"I guess I'll keep them. I might look at them sometime. I might not. But thank you for everything," he told Mikuni.
The clean-up specialist was glad to know he'd made the right choice.
"I think that was the right thing to do. I feel relieved," he said.
Mikuni had another experience that made him realize the importance of handling mementos with care.
On a previous case, a woman asked Mikuni to find a pair of her late husband's mittens that his mother knitted when he was a child.
Though they lived separately at the time of his death, the woman wanted to keep the mittens to remember him.
Mikuni eventually found them at the bottom of one of the piles and was able to give them to the woman.
"Clearing up a deceased person's belongings gives me insight into their life," says Mikuni.
"I'm compelled to think about how they might have felt. I've come to believe that is the essence of the job."
Hidetoshi Inomata, who covered the story, joins Newsroom Tokyo's Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.
Beppu: As we saw in the report, there's a demand for people to clean up the homes of the deceased. How many professional helpers like Mikuni are there?
Inomata: A specialist association was established 7 years ago and there are about 17,000 members across the country.
It requires tests on skills and knowledge of cleaning up to join. And it is expected to grow bigger in the near future.
Japanese society is getting older and family ties are getting weaker. That means more demand for professionals to take care of people's belongings.
Shibuya: People can end up in solitude for various reasons, right?
Inomata: Yes. This trend of senior citizens living in solitude will only increase because of the change in social values.
So the professional helpers are providing services crucial to such people. Mikuni is giving advice to old people on how to organize their belongings and make a list of mementos while they're alive.
With this, he will not dispose of things that are important. And a small part of who they were can live on.