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Dying alone in the world’s most populous city

– Isolation –

The problem is exacerbated by a deep-rooted Japanese cultural tendency to turn to family rather than neighbours in times of trouble.

In a bid to be polite, elderly Japanese people fear to disturb their neighbours even to ask for help in the most trifling matters, resulting in a lack of interaction and isolation, expert Fujimori said.

Some 15 percent of elderly Japanese people living alone report having only one conversation a week, compared to five percent of their peers in Sweden, six percent in the US and eight percent in Germany, according to a Japanese government study.

And families increasingly live away or do not have the resources to help elderly relatives in tough economic times.

Fujimori advocates raising taxes to provide better social care for the elderly and financial assistance for childcare, freeing up working-age adults to return to the workforce.

“If family can no longer play the roles it has been playing, society must build a framework that responds to that need,” said Fujimori.

“If nothing is done, we’ll see more solitary deaths,” he added.

– No pictures, no letters –

Aside from the anguish for relatives when they realise their loved-one has lain undiscovered for days, there is a practical element as these cases tend to cause apartment prices to plunge.

Cleaning firm boss Ishimi says Japan needs to educate young people about the issue and the lack of dignity suffered by the isolated elderly.

“How does one wish to die? Society as a whole must think about this,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at the Tokyo apartment, Ohshima and his team keep the windows closed to prevent the noxious stench from spreading through the densely populated neighbourhood.

The room is filled with signs of the frugal, clean living of a music and movie lover who kept a vast collection of CDs and DVDs but not much else. No pictures. No letters.

Most items are thrown out but Ohshima and his two colleagues methodically go through the man’s belongings for valuables in case his family eventually comes forward and wishes to see whatever he left behind.

“Police are looking for his relatives,” said Ohshima.

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