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Japan's approach to aging and dying; Longer lives and fewer family ties mean more people will age and die alone.

The aging of society in Japan foreshadows challenges ahead for other advanced industrial nations like the United States. About 20% of the Japanese population is over age 65 (compared with 12% in the United States), and Japan is wrestling with many consequences of this unprecedented and ongoing population shift.

Typical of the unexpected impacts is an increase in the number nationwide of kodokushi ("lonely death"), referring to an elderly person who has died with no relatives or friends to provide care in the last days, weeks, or even months. Traditionalists point to this ruefully as evidence of the collapse of the conventional family system and the erosion of networks of local community ties.

The larger society is responding in several ways to the trend toward aging alone. One response is coming from massive housing complexes, especially those where the median age is soaring as oldsters live longer. To promote social ties, housing complexes are opening community centers that are staffed 365 days a year from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. by volunteers, most of whom are seniors. Housing officials are promoting greeting campaigns that encourage residents to say hello to one another--with the hope that such social niceties extend to true social connection. Officials at these complexes also conduct patrols that check for unclaimed mail in the boxes of residents, and they ask the gas company to alert them when an elderly resident stops using gas.


As aging alone leads to death alone, new services are emerging from both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. One new for-profit company, called Keepers, was founded in 2002 to perform such services as cleaning up the mess commonly found when a body is discovered in a disheveled flat. Keepers does this in the Japanese way, with euphemisms, discretion, and diplomacy artfully employed to make grieving relatives and friends experience the least amount of public suffering and remorse, perhaps, for neglect. Keepers is now getting about 30 kodokushi-related requests a month.

Funerals are another issue being addressed outside the family. For example, a nonprofit group called Ending Center works to honor the wish of many elderly Japanese to be buried under the shadow of large venerable cherry trees during the two-week cherry blossom season.

"Strong communities, based on territorial connection and blood ties, have ceased their role, and we have entered the days of loose ones, of which one form is a cherry tree burial," says Haruyo Inoue, an Ending Center spokesperson.

The Center facilitates the arrangements long before illness, promising the signers they will be interred in a group grave alongside of friends (often from the same housing complex or neighborhood). The grave will receive perpetual care, and the burial ceremony will include a live jazz concert followed by readings from the Buddhist sutras and some Christian prayers--a quintessential Japanese mix of new, old, and revered.

Arthur B. Shostak is emeritus professor of sociology at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Web site

Further reading: "Burial Under Cherry Blossoms Fulfills a Woman's Last Wish" by Michiko Munakata, The Japan Times (Kyodo News Service), April 19, 2007.

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Title Annotation:Society
Author:Shostak, Arthur B.
Publication:The Futurist
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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