In the last few years, there has been an increasing din of alarm bells in the international press regarding the myriad ways in which Japan is coping (or failing) with their ever-increasingly graying population and low fertility rate. One growing trend has been the growth of kodokushi, or lonely deaths, where elderly people die alone and remain undiscovered for days, weeks, or months.
As this problem continues to grow, real answers are few, but people are starting to come up with some half-measures to avoid a similar situation for themselves. Anecdotes that I have heard include elderly people signing up for programs that periodically deliver free samples or routine sales calls to the residence. (Indeed, many salespeople are trained to notify police after several consecutive unsuccessful attempts to get someone to answer the door.) Others are making arrangements with another member of the community to monitor the residence for signs of activity.
Although there are several articles that discuss this trend, the one that really hit home for me was “A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death” by Norimitsu Onishi in the NY Times. Another article, “Cleaning Up After the Dead” by Anna Fifield showcases the aftermath of such hidden deaths, including the efforts of those who are tasked with cleaning up after such unfortunately common incidents.
However, beyond even this grim trend, the effects of the Japanese population crisis are showing in other ways, too. According to this article by Shiho Fukuda, some elderly people are choosing to engage in shoplifting and other small crimes in order to go to prison, and some even choose to go back to prison to avoid dealing with life on the outside. This article provides some portraits of several women who contributed their stories to the article, including information about their background and why they chose a late life of crime over the lives they led on the outside.
It should go without saying that the optics of sending elderly people to prison for minor crimes are pretty bad. That said, the tendency of society is to lay the blame on these isolated people within their community instead of looking for ways to address their needs in a more constructive and useful way. I can only hope that such solutions are forthcoming.