An unprecedented heat wave has swept across Japan this summer. Record-breaking temperatures have seen Tokyo rise above 40 degrees, and by Tuesday evening more than 22,000 people had been taken to hospital, suffering from heat stroke or dehydration. While relief efforts continue in Western Japan after last week’s flooding, at least 65 people are said to have died as a result of the heat wave, mostly elderly citizens living alone.

The normally packed streets of Ameyoko Market, Ueno, have been uncharacteristically empty as shoppers avoid the heat indoors. Credit – Sam Peters/Jericho Online

Dying alone in Japan is not uncommon, though usually it occurs during the bitter winters and in towering apartment blocks in urban areas. The Japanese even have a word for a lonely death: kodokushi. The phenomenon of dying alone in Japan was first described in the 1980s and received worldwide media attention in 2009 when the body of a 69-year-old man was discovered three years after his death, consumed by maggots and beetles. He had only been discovered once his savings had run out and his account closed. He is not an isolated case, and many of those who perish are not found for months or even years after their deaths.

In fact, an entire industry has emerged to cater for cleaning and moving bodies out of apartments. “The majority of lonely deaths are people who are kind of messy” says Taichi Yoshida, the owner of one such business. “It’s the person who, when they take something out, they don’t put it back; when something breaks, they don’t fix it; when a relationship falls apart, they don’t repair it.”

When I’m Sixty Four

Japan’s ageing population is widely reported on in the international media. An estimated one third of its population is above the age of 60, and more adult nappies are sold than those for children. This can largely be attributed to a post-war baby boom followed by a prolonged period of low fertility from the 1950s to the present day. Compounding this, Japan also has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world.

Japan’s economic bubble dramatically burst in the 1990s, forcing a radical restructuring of the Japanese private sector. The effects of this are still being felt today, and the number of temporary, contracted and part-time workers has tripled over the last two decades. The government is now relaxing its tough immigration policies to draw in more foreign workers to fill record numbers of vacant positions.

Consequently, Japanese businessmen who had been working and thriving at the pinnacle of the Japanese economic miracle around 1970, many of whom had never married or had children, were suddenly forgotten by the work-driven system that had defined their lives.

It is difficult to cite a figure, but many of these businessmen were forced into early retirement. “The firm was everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure” says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist.

Workers and residents in Asakusa head home under stormy skies after another sweltering day. Credit – Sam Peters/Jericho Online

Are you lonesome tonight?

Journalist Mark McDonald believes that the loneliness problem among the Japanese elderly is cultural. Writing in the New York Times, he stated that the “Japanese trait of uncomplaining endurance”, or gaman, discourages people from asking neighbours, authorities and even families for help. Many of the current elderly population no longer live near their families and have few or no social connections, a problem compounded by a nationwide shortage of care homes.

In fact, according to a 2010 Japanese government survey, one quarter of Japanese men and one in ten elderly women have no neighbours, friends or relatives on whom they can rely on in difficult times. “There is a kind of myth that older people in Japan are living in three-generational families, but that’s not so anymore”, Takako Sodei, a gerontologist at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, told Time magazine.

Can’t buy me love

Characteristically, the Japanese market has responded to the loneliness epidemic. It is common to see diners enjoying ramen alone in secluded single-person booths, or city workers sheltering from the heat in air-conditioned cafes fixated on their phones. But swathes of options now exist for the younger generations to find company. Maid cafes are littered around Tokyo: in these, tourists as well as regular, single male customers can pay to have a waitress dressed as a maid play games with them, pose for photographs and treat them like royalty – for a strict time limit.

For those searching for a more traditional alternative to maid cafes, geisha or their apprentices, maiko, can still occasionally be seen flitting between parties in Kyoto. Credit – Sam Peters/Jericho Online

Cuddle cafes offer paying clients a hug with a stranger for a fee, and it is even possible to pay a Japanese woman for company on a trip to Disneyland. Many of the regulars at these cafes and bars are Japanese men in their late twenties and thirties. The New Yorker described the benefits of renting a family for one sixty year-old man; companies are springing up offering virtual wives. Where there is demand, there is supply.

Hot town, summer in the city

In the capital, the world’s largest city with a population of over 35 million, the bustling Shinjuku ward at the city’s epicentre has taken action, creating a campaign to raise awareness about loneliness and death that hosts social events and regularly checks up on residents living alone. That said, the focus remains on the sad, strange world of loneliness in Japan with Departures, a film based upon the cleaning up of the lonely dead receiving the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

The neon-filled streets of Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s entertainment district, provide ample opportunity to escape the loneliness of modern life. Credit – Sam Peters/Jericho Online

In the current 40 degree humidity of Tokyo, many of the younger Japanese may dive into a cafe to escape the sweltering heat, dining alone, perhaps served by a maid. For the older generations, the deadly heat wave is set to continue over the next week. In a sprawling metropolis with a population density of over 6,000 people per square kilometre, it is inevitably difficult to help those who might need it and very possible that many of the bodies struck by the heat are yet to be found.

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