The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the third installment of a series.
With more people staying single, unattended deaths are becoming a risk not just for the elderly but also for people of working age.
In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake caused enormous damage in 2011, a 42-year-old man was found dead in a public housing unit for quake victims on June 4 of this year.
Police investigating the case found that the man had been dead for two weeks and may have died suddenly of acute heart failure and other factors.
A physician explained to a relative who arrived to collect the body that the man’s death may have been the result of great physical and mental stress.
The man’s parents and younger sister had been missing since the tsunami following the quake more than six years earlier.
Their house had also been destroyed. Before he suddenly lost his family, the man had been out of work and mostly lived a solitary existence inside the house. After the disaster, he began to work as a day laborer to earn a living, doing jobs such as clearing debris.
“When I’m working, I can forget the grief I feel at having lost my family in the disaster,” the man said soon after the earthquake, speaking to the head of the NPO that helped him find the debris-clearing job.
In his room in the temporary housing unit where he lived at the time, the man displayed photos of his three missing family members.
A former employee of that same NPO said that he can never forget how the man used to look at the photos. The employee recalls the man saying: “I loved my family so much. Why did I escape all by myself?”
The man continued to take jobs related to reconstruction work, including as a contract worker for an architectural firm and a carpenter’s apprentice.
Until mid-May, he had been sorting waste from reconstruction and other sites. However, he believed all the hard work he was doing outdoors was beginning to affect his health.
On May 17, the man interviewed for a job at a supermarket that was set to open near the public housing unit where he had lived since last year.
“I’ve always kept my promises to others. I’ll be happy just to work with a roof over my head,” the man reportedly said at the job interview. He was hired the same day.
The police investigation determined the man likely died around May 20, the same day he was supposed to begin working at the supermarket.
However, the store official in charge was not particularly alarmed when the man did not show up for work, saying, “It’s not uncommon for people to quit without letting us know.”
There were about 200 households in the public housing unit where the man lived, all of them disaster victims who had moved there from temporary housing units in Ishinomaki.
But no one knew the man well. Some saw him leave home in work clothes early in the morning and return at night, but they did not speak to him beyond exchanging greetings.
By the day the man was found dead, a community notice had been posted in front of his door for about two weeks. However, nobody found this suspicious until a member of the residents’ association heard about it during a building cleaning that day.
A woman in her 60s living on the same floor reportedly placed the notice at the man’s door about the time he died.
The woman noticed that the lights inside the room were on day and night, but she said it did not occur to her that he might have collapsed in the room because the man was young and still working.
A 47-year-old man who had worked alongside him clearing debris after the disaster helped him dismantle his tsunami-ravaged family home.
Afterwards, the former coworker would contact the man several times a year, and even visited his home in early May. He noticed at the time that the man seemed a little tired and suggested over tea that he take care not to work too hard.
The man reportedly replied: “I’m eating properly, I’m fine.” The former coworker looked back with sadness, saying: “He always gave his all when he was working. If only I had tried a little harder to get him to slow down.”
A female relative who came to collect the man’s remains also had the impression that he always seemed to be working after the quake.
“After he suddenly lost his family, he did a great deal of physical labor that his body wasn’t accustomed to. He must have been exhausted mentally and physically,” she said, adding that his relatives wanted to pay closer attention to his health but could not find time for it because they were also disaster victims.
Lack of relationships
The Tokyo-based Small Amount and Short Term Insurance Association of Japan conducted research into the state of insurance products that compensate landlords for expenses to restore a room to its original condition in the event that a person dies alone.
Of 1,095 people who the association found had died alone between April 2015 and January this year, 40 percent were in their 20s to 50s.
Taichi Yoshida, 53, is the president of Keepers, a Tokyo-based firm that annually accepts about 200-300 cases in which it cleans up the belongings of people who died alone.
“When it comes to people of working age, we see a lot of men in their 40s and 50s in particular. We often find evidence that they had few relationships with other people. For example, their rooms are cluttered, and there are no indications that other people ever visited,” Yoshida said.Speech