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A Generation In Japan Faces A Lonely Death

TOKIWADAIRA, Japan – Every Japanese schoolchild knows about cicadas. They come out in summer but lie years underground before rising to the surface of the earth. During the few days they live among us they cast their shells off and climb up the nearest tree where they mate, fly and cry. They cry until their short lives end by falling on the ground, twitching and pointing their legs upward.

Chieko Ito really hated the sound they were making. They invaded her third-floor apartment every summer, making a lot of noise which was only getting louder by the day. As one species of cicadas stopped making noise, another one would start right away making any kind of silence impossible. By the time these insects peaked in numbers, showers of dying and dead cicadas would start falling down like rain. And as the end of summer came with it came the silence.

It was Chieko’s 91st birthday when a heat wave had began to make people worried. A lot of volunteers had been assigned to distribute leaflets on the dangers of heart stroke to the residents of these buildings where a lot of elderly people like Mrs. Ito lived. Many older residents had no families or any visitors, so they spent weeks or even months hiding in their small apartments.

Each year some of these tenants died without anyone knowing until some neighbor caught the smell.

A man that had lived near Mrs. Ito had died in his apartment and his corpse had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing. His rent and utilities had been withdrawn from his bank account and no one noticed his absence. In 2000 all of his savings had been depleted and the authorities came to the apartment only to find his skeleton lying on the ground, just a few steps away from his neighbors.

Mrs. Ito has lived in this huge apartment complex for nearly 60 years. It is one of the biggest residential complexes in Japan built by the government like a monument to the nation’s postwar baby boom. It also showed the aspirations for a more modern way of life, but instead became known for the “lonely deaths” of the most rapidly aging society.

The national alarm appeared this summer when a cover of a popular magazine estimated about “4,000 lonely deaths a week”

Many residents in Mrs. Ito’s complex consider the deaths a very frightening but natural conclusion of Japan’s journey since the 1960s. The focus on economic growth, followed by stagnation had left families and communities trapped in this demographic cubicle of increasing age and declining births.

These “lonely deaths” have become so common in Japan that they made an entire industry around it which specialized in cleaning out apartments with decomposing remains.

The most dangerous season for these deaths to happen was summer. Mrs. Ito knew no one would call, or check on her even on her birthday. Her friends and family were long gone, dead or alive and she was left alone in these buildings, reminiscing about the time she and her husband moved there in 1960.

Mrs. Ito never expected to live so long. She had been lonely ever since her daughter and husband died of cancer, quarter of a century ago.

“Every room is mine, and I can do as I please” said Mrs. Ito, but she was not satisfied.

She didn’t want to be another case of these “lonely deaths” so she asked her neighbor for a favor. Her neighbor’s task was to gaze up at her windows once a day to check if Mrs. Ito had opened her paper screen in the morning. If it’s closed after 5:40am (the time she wakes up) that means she is dead.

Mrs. Ito had already planned everything else. On her 90th birthday she organized her final affairs by filling out an “ending note”. These notes are very popular in Japan and they ensure an orderly, clean death. She also left money for cleaning out her home once the day arrived. The only thing left to do was for someone to wipe the red coloring from her name which was already engraved on the family headstone, signifying she had joined her husband and daughter.

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

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