Suicide Cleanup, A Japanese Growth Industry

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 4/06/2010 11:04:00 PM
It is a macabre statistic but at least 30,000 suicides have occurred annually in Japan annually since 1993. This period, of course, covers the aftermath of the bursting of the bubble economy. Japan is very much a face-driven society, and the perceived inability of many to fend for themselves or provide for their families has often been the tipping point in going the way of Ozzy Osbourne. While perusing the most recent issue of TIME, I came across an interesting article in which this phenomenon has been made by some into a growth industry. No, I'm not talking about Kevorking people; it's more interesting than that.

It turns out that suicide is extremely nasty not only from a social standpoint but also from a maintenance one:
In the 1990s, Taichi Yoshida, the owner of a small moving company in Osaka, Japan, began noticing that many of his jobs involved people who had just died. Families of the deceased were either too squeamish to pack up for their dead relatives, or there wasn't any family to call on. So Yoshida started a new business cleaning out the homes of the dead. Then he started noticing something else: thick, dark stains shaped like a human body, the residue of liquids excreted by a decomposing corpse.

These, he learned, were kodokushi, or 'lonely deaths.' Now he has seen plenty — these deaths make up 300 of the 1,500 cleaning jobs performed by his company each year. The people die alone, sprawled on the floor beside crumpled clothing and dirty dishes, tucked beneath flowery bedspreads, slouched against the wall. Months — even years — can pass before somebody notices a body. On occasion, all that's left are bones. "The majority of lonely deaths are people who are kind of messy," says Yoshida. "It's the person who, when they take something out, they don't put it back; when something breaks, they don't fix it; when a relationship falls apart, they don't repair it."

In Japan, kodokushi, a phenomenon first described in the 1980s, has become hauntingly common. In 2008 in Tokyo, more than 2,200 people over 65 died lonely deaths, according to statistics from the city's Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health. The deaths most often involve men in their 50s and the nation's rapidly increasingly elderly population. Today, 1 in 5 Japanese is over 65; by 2030 it will be 1 in 3. With senior citizens increasingly living away from family and a nationwide shortage of nursing homes, many are now living alone. "There is a kind of myth that older people in Japan are living in three-generational families, but that's not so anymore," says Takako Sodei, a gerontologist with Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. (See pictures of Japan in the 1980s and today.)

Japan's two-decade economic slump is not helping. The collapse of the bubble economy after 1990 shrunk the size of Japanese firms and led to a restructuring that is still playing out today. The percentage of the workforce employed in part-time, temporary and contract work has tripled since 1990, forcing workaholic Japanese businessmen, many of whom never married, into a lonely early retirement. "Their world has evaporated under their feet," says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist who studies Japanese work life. "The firm has been everything for these men: their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure..."

As lonely deaths have continued, Yoshida's work has gained nationwide attention. A recent novel based on his life may be turned into a movie and a television series about his business is also in the works, but not everyone regards his service as a good thing. Several hundred years ago, the Japanese witnessed death regularly, with bodies buried by family members and samurai displaying severed heads in public. These days, such moments are rare. Such ceremonies would give "an opportunity to think about the dead person," says Masaki Ichinose, a University of Tokyo philosopher and head of the university's Institute of Death and Life Studies, founded in 2002 to encourage more national conversation on death.

Building a business around the dead, as Yoshida has, is an unglamorous and oft-maligned profession, as depicted in Departures, the Japanese film that won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film, which follows an unemployed cellist who takes a job getting corpses ready for funerals. "The film has created interest in this profession," says Ichinose, "but most people still tend to avoid the topic."

Ichinose speculates the kodokushi trend might be connected to Japan's contemporary cultural habit of ignoring death, and a possible avenue of research for the Institute of Death and Life Studies. "I don't know why," he says, "but people don't want to see a dead body and, in general, they don't want to talk about death."
I wouldn't be surprised to see the same thing being replicated in the United States given the implosion of its own bubble and very, very limited prospects for employment among so many persons of near-retirement age who haven't saved in that consumption-driven culture. Call it "buy and die." If you don't have enough for retirement or retirement care more specifically, you might as well blow your brains out. As the lyrics from a song by a quality American band go: " much blood for such a tiny little hole."

Even in a moribund economy, you've got to make a living, right?