Lonely Death Cleanup Is Booming Business in Japan

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As society ages and families grow apart, many seniors face a "lonely death," especially in Japan — and there's money to be made in cleaning up after one.
As society ages and families grow apart, many seniors face a “lonely death,” especially in Japan — and there’s money to be made in cleaning up after one.

Every once in a while, you pick up the paper or turn on the TV and you hear about social workers or someone finding a 90-something in an apartment badly decomposed. You think, as I do, how the hell does that happen? But as a society ages, and as families move apart, it becomes more and more common. In Japan, it happens enough that there is a term for it, kodokushi or “lonely death.” There’s also a business in cleaning up after one.

Reuters did a report on this on April 1 (sadly not an April Fool’s joke). There’s a guy named Hirotsugu Masuda who has a business that cleans up after the body is taken away. How’s the lonely death business? During the summer, when corpses decompose quickly, his team handles three or four a week.

I will let Chris Meyers of Reuters give you the gory details:

“When Masuda’s team turns up at the Tokyo apartment, police have taken away the corpse but body fluids have seeped into the floor. Flies buzz around a cooker filled with rice. Old calendars and papers are strewn in rooms untouched for years.

“Workers wearing protective gear spray the apartment with insect repellent, using gloved hands to pack the trash in boxes. The six-hour exercise is conducted discreetly to avoid upsetting the neighbors. The crew tells onlookers they are moving house.

“When they are done, incense and flowers are placed where the body was, with the man’s photo put where his head had been.”

Nice touch, no?

If you need more graphic detailing of the work, Britain’s Daily Mail has some good but disturbing pictures of lonely death clean up.

The price for Mr. Masuda’s services ranges from 81,000 yen ($676) to 341,000 yen ($2,845) and depends on the size of the apartment, which sort of surprised me. I figured you’d have to pay by the degree of ickiness, but I guess square footage is easier to measure. I mean, how much worse is cleaning up one bodily fluid compared to another? The gross-out coefficient would be tough to decide.

Why is this happening in Japan? A few factors are involved it seems. First off, Japan is an aging society. There are 127 million Japanese, and 25 percent are over 65; by 2030, the elderly will be a third of the population. Nursing homes are in short supply. Families don’t all live in the same village, town or city any more either. You can set your bills up for automatic payment, and your computer doesn’t know you’re dead, so everything gets paid, so no one notices you’re gone. Sounds a little like America to me, so maybe our turn is coming.

Masuda isn’t the only man in this gruesome business. Five years ago, Time reported on Taichi Yoshida, who deals with lonely deaths as well. “As lonely deaths have continued, Yoshida’s work has gained nationwide attention. A recent novel based on his life may be turned into a movie, and a television series about his business is also in the works, but not everyone regards his service as a good thing.”

I don’t think the service is a bad thing so much as a sad one. As for the TV series, I think I’ll pass.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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