A Generation In Japan Faces A Lonely Death

TOKIWADAIRA, Japan — Cicadas, every Japanese schoolchild knows, lie underground for years before rising to the earth’s surface in summer. They climb up the nearest tree, where they cast off their shells and start their short second lives. During their few days among us, they mate, fly and cry. They cry until their bodies are found on the ground, twitching in their last moments, or on their backs with their legs pointing upward.

Chieko Ito hated the din they made. They had just started shrieking, as they always did in early summer, and the noise would keep getting louder in the weeks to come, invading her third-floor apartment, making any kind of silence impossible. As one species of cicadas quieted down, another’s distinct cry would take over. Then, as the insects peaked in numbers, showers of dead and dying cicadas would rain down on her enormous housing complex, stopping only with the end of summer itself.

“You hear them from morning to evening,” she sighed.

It was the afternoon of her 91st birthday, and unusually hot, part of a heat wave that had community leaders worried. Elderly volunteers had been winding through the labyrinth of footpaths, distributing leaflets on the dangers of heatstroke to the many hundreds of residents like Mrs. Ito who lived alone in 171 nearly identical white buildings. With no families or visitors to speak of, many older tenants spent weeks or months cocooned in their small apartments, offering little hint of their existence to the world outside their doors. And each year, some of them died without anyone knowing, only to be discovered after their neighbors caught the smell.

The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.

The huge government apartment complex where Mrs. Ito has lived for nearly 60 years — one of the biggest in Japan, a monument to the nation’s postwar baby boom and aspirations for a modern, American way of life — suddenly became known for something else entirely: the “lonely deaths” of the world’s most rapidly aging society.

“4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.

To many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex, the deaths were the natural and frightening conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. A single-minded focus on economic growth, followed by painful economic stagnation over the past generation, had frayed families and communities, leaving them trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births. The extreme isolation of elderly Japanese is so common that an entire industry has emerged around it, specializing in cleaning out apartments where decomposing remains are found.

“The way we die is a mirror of the way we live,” said Takumi Nakazawa, 83, the chairman of the resident council at Mrs. Ito’s housing complex for the past 32 years.

Summer was the most dangerous season for these lonely deaths, and Mrs. Ito wasn’t taking any chances. Birthday or not, she knew that no one would call, drop a note or stop by to check on her. Born in the last year of the reign of Emperor Taisho, she never expected to live this long. One by one, family and friends had vanished or grown feeble. Ghosts, of the living and dead, now dwelled all around her in the scores of uniform buildings she and her husband had rushed to in 1960 when all of Japan seemed young.

“Now every room is mine, and I can do as I please,” Mrs. Ito said. “But it’s no good.”

Chieko Ito, 91, has lived in her housing complex, or danchi, one of the biggest in Japan, for nearly 60 years. Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

She had been lonely every day for the past quarter of a century, she said, ever since her daughter and husband had died of cancer, three months apart. Mrs. Ito still had a stepdaughter, but they had grown apart over the decades, exchanging New Year’s cards or occasional greetings on holidays.

So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?

Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.

“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”

Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.

If her neighbor happened to notice the paper screen in daylight, the woman could promptly alert the authorities. Everything else had been thought out and taken care of in advance. On her 90th birthday, Mrs. Ito had filled out an “ending note” that organized her final affairs. The notes, which have become popular in Japan, help ensure a clean, orderly death. Mrs. Ito had also given away the tablets from the family’s Buddhist altar — the miniature headstones considered so precious that many Japanese would scoop them up before running out of a house on fire.

So many things in her apartment now reminded her of the dead. There were the paperbacks, hundreds of them jammed onto shelves, that her dying husband had told her to throw away after reading. The finely carved chest of drawers, which her daughter had carted away after getting married, sat there, too, returned decades ago when the young woman died. Tucked inside a cabinet were the books that Mrs. Ito had written herself, including a dry but exhaustive two-volume book about her life in the housing complex and a 224-page autobiography, all finished in a final burst of activity.

Mrs. Ito, meticulous as ever, had even left behind money to clean out her home once the day arrived. The only thing left to do was to wipe away the red coloring from her name, already engraved on the family headstone, to signify that she had finally joined her husband and daughter.

“Everybody around me has died, one after another, and I’m the only one left,” she said. “But when I think about death, I’m afraid.”

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