“Lonely deaths” in Japan raise questions

The deaths of a family of three by starvation in Japan have focused attention on how the government deals with poverty among the elderly and unemployed, according to the BBC.

The decomposed bodies of the family of three – a couple in their 60s and their son, aged 30 – were found more than a month after they died, apparently of starvation, reported ABC News.

They lived in an apartment in Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo; their rent had been unpaid for six months and their gas and electricity were cut off. The neighbors had not seen them or checked on them in months, though one neighbor said she had urged them to seek welfare after the mother in the family asked her for financial assistance.

More on GlobalPost: Japan cabinet approves sales tax increase

The Guardian reported that the family was not on a list of vulnerable households, which are regularly visited by welfare officials. Japanese media speculated that the family was too ashamed to ask for financial help. They had not received welfare payments since 2003.

These cases are called “lonely deaths” or kodokushi, and according to an article in Time magazine from 2010, the phenomenon was first described in the 1980s. According to statistics from Tokyo’s Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, more than 2,200 people over the age of 65 died alone in 2008. Japan’s aging population is estimated to hit a point where 1 in 3 people are over the age of 65, as early as next year.

Hisashi Hirayama, a professor at Tokyo University of Social Welfare, told ABC News that, “Many poor people are invisible, particularly in urban areas. So many people are isolated nowadays. In general, people are reluctant to get involved in their neighbor’s private affairs.”

Despite Japan having a high standard of living, reports suggest more than 700 people have died of starvation since 2000 and the fear is that the ailing economy and the tsunami and earthquake disasters from last year will only increase the number of needy, said the Guardian.

Hirayama told ABC News, “Help is available but you must reach out yourself. People are hesitant to do that because of pride.”

More on GlobalPost: Tsunami lessons learned

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.