The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the sixth and final installment of a series.
About 6 million people 65 or older live alone in Japan — five times as many as 30 years ago. Amid such circumstances, there are many who directly seek connections with others and those who work to find themselves in a situation where they can meet others.
Group Living En-no-Mori is situated among an area of green trees in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture. It is a two-story residence that 10 elderly singles from their 60s to 90s share. They each have private rooms and a common space that includes a living room, dining room and bathroom.
It costs ¥3 million to move into this shared house, and monthly costs of ¥128,000 go mainly to the rent and evening meals. Residents have dinner together, but are otherwise free to spend their time however they choose.
Setsuko Hashiguchi, 77, moved into the house three years ago. She has no children and had been living alone for 13 years since her husband was hospitalized with dementia. Because of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, she began to feel apprehensive about living alone and decided to move into the shared house.
The residents do not excessively get in each other’s way or interfere with one another’s lives, but they feel a sense of security with the others there to watch over them.
If a resident does not show up for dinner, others go and check their room. Neighbors are close enough to notice if one of the occupants falls in their room.
“I like that I have my freedom, but I’m not lonely here,” Hashiguchi said.
These kinds of joint living arrangements came to the forefront after a number of victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake died solitary deaths. Today, these houses can be found nationwide.
“We want the house to become a facility for elderly people who want to avoid being isolated and seek a connection with others,” said Misato Kojima, executive director of the nonprofit organization that operates En-no-Mori.
Breaking out of shell
Yuji Motoya, 68, lives by himself in Sapporo. He registered in autumn last year as a member of Sapporo-based NPO Volunavi, which operates a meeting place where singles of various ages can make friends of the same and the opposite sex.
He was motivated by a sense of urgency that seized him.
“I thought if I died, maybe nobody would even realize it,” he said.
After he lost his parents when he was a child, Motoya worked as a lathe operator and boiler engineer in places such as Hokkaido, Tokyo and Yamagata Prefecture.
He wanted to marry, but because he is shy and withdrawn, he remains single to this day. While in his 50s, he settled in a house in Sapporo. However, he did not interact much with his neighbors. When he retired after turning 65, he ended up “talking only to the TV.” He felt increasingly lonely.
About 200 men and women from their 20s to 80s are registered with Volunavi. Most of them are over 50.
“Among our members are people who want to alleviate their fear of dying alone, even just a little bit, by finding friends and people to talk to,” said Mamiko Morita, 45, executive director of Volunavi.
After registering, Motoya faithfully attends the monthly meetings. He felt unsure at first because of the lack of opportunities to converse with others since his retirement. However, he found he was able to express himself more than he expected.
“I want to get out of my shell and make sure I’m not alone in my old age,” he said. “That’s my goal now.”
“You have to eat vegetables, too, you know.”
It was at about noon on Oct. 26 at the office of the NPO Sanyukai, which organizes free medical examinations for and provides free food to people in need in the Sanya area of Tokyo.
Around a table loaded with freely distributed portions of curry and rice, staff members of the NPO chat happily with people, including a 74-year-old man.
The man, who moved up to Tokyo from Nagano Prefecture after graduating from junior high school, worked as an employee at a printing company and a security guard at a market. However, his employer went bankrupt when he was already over 60. He was evicted from his apartment because he could no longer pay the rent.
He has not returned to his family’s home for more than 30 years and is unable to rely on support from his siblings or other relatives. Without close friends, he ended up homeless, living in a park for about three years. Then he moved into simple lodgings in Sanya.
While he was living like that about 10 years ago, he heard there was a place where people in similar circumstances gathered. He thus visited Sanyukai for the first time. The staff reached out to him after he repeatedly attended lunches and the like, and he became a regular.
“I was really happy I found people to talk to,” the man said.
Today, the man, who receives pension benefits and lives alone in an apartment, still comes by the NPO almost every day. If he does not show up for a few days, a staff member visits his apartment to see if he is doing all right. That is reassuring for him.