WORLDCRUNCH

Longer Lives, Dying Alone And The Things We Leave Behind

As life expectancy numbers rise, a growing number of seniors experience kodokushi (lonely death), as it's known in Japan.

A worldwide question
A worldwide question
Irene Caselli

TOKYO — Masazo Nonaka, 113, was the world's oldest man when he died last month on Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido in an inn that has been run by his family for four generations. With him, at the time, was his granddaughter.

Nonaka's advanced age was remarkable even by the standards of Japan, which has the world's highest life expectancy, at 84. It is noteworthy too that he didn't die alone, because in Japan — which also has one of the lowest birth rates and fastest-shrinking populations — many elderly people do. So many that there's even a term for it: kodokushi, or lonely death.

Indeed, a survey conducted by the Japenese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun shows that local governments are facing difficulties in disposing of the belongings of those who die alone. The survey says that over 1,000 public housing units are now occupied by the belongings of single residents who died alone.

Over 1,000 public housing units are now occupied by the belongings of single residents who died alone.

Bloomberg, for its part, has reported on a growing industry of cleaning companies, where lonely deaths account for 30% of overall clients.

Since about half of residents in public housing are 65 or older, local authorities are calling on the central government to establish clear rules for disposing of such belongings. Current legislation says that heirs have to be contacted for instructions, but they are often difficult to track down. Either that or there just aren't any. In one case, north-west of Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture, belongings remained undisposed of for 18 years.

Japan's elderly face many other issues beyond loneliness. Some do not have a family to rely on and live in poverty, as Philippe Pons, the Tokyo correspondent for France's Le Monde, reported. Perhaps for that reason, there's also a surprising number of senior-age criminal offenders in Japan, according to the December 2018 "White Paper on Crime," which notes that 21.1% of those arrested in 2017 were over the age of 65.

Photo: Gideon

Older offenders are usually arrested for petty theft. Some steal food to feed themselves. Others say they prefer prison to life on the threshold of poverty (or below) and loneliness. Le Monde quoted one man as saying: "Tomorrow I will go to prison to see a friend. He is not a criminal, he is my age 78 years old and he was arrested for shoplifting in a supermarket. He wanted to be arrested. In prison, he keeps warm, he is fed and if he is sick, they take care of him... One day I may have to do the same."

Kodokushi isn't an issue just in Japan. Life expectancy is rising in many countries, and women in particular — especially those without children, statisticians note — are at high risk of spending their final days alone given that they frequently outlive their partners.

So, are there any solutions?

In South Korea, a growing number of middle-aged men live alone and hence die alone, a phenomenon that the government is trying to counteract by creating neighborhood groups to pay regular visits to those who live alone. And in the United States, villages for seniors have started popping up along with a growing number of multigenerational homes.

Author Margareta Magnusson has some ideas as well. In a 2017 book titled The Gentle Art of Swedish Death-Cleaning, the Swedish writer urges people to de-clutter in preparation for death. People may not be able to choose all the circumstances of their death, but they can at least determine what to do with their belongings.

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Society

A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.


Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?


The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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