Afraid of Dying Alone

My friends in New York City laugh at me when I tell them of my latest fear: dying alone and not being discovered for weeks.

It doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched possibility to me. I have high-blood pressure and thus a greater chance than normal of having a stroke. I live alone in a large high-rise and don’t know my neighbors. I moved here recently and am only beginning to create a network of friends who could be on the lookout for me.

Admittedly, it’s a silly worry. I should take what precautions I can, and move on. Besides, what difference would anything make to me once I am gone?

What got my anxiety levels up were some widely reported instances of such deaths in Japan that I heard about during a recent visit home. There’s even a term for the phenomenon there: “kodokushi,” which literally translates as “lonely death.”

In February, a 45-year-old woman and her mentally disabled four-year-old son were discovered dead in their Tokyo apartment. Authorities believe the mother passed away from a stroke a month or two previously, and the boy, emaciated when recovered, had subsequently starved to death. Last month, an 87-year-old woman living in a private apartment in a retirement complex was found collapsed and dead in her bathroom an estimated one week after her demise.

The case that resonated with me the most was of that of Mie Yamaguchi, a single, bilingual woman close to my age. Yamaguchi, 51, was found by a relative one day after she died alone in her apartment, apparently from heart failure.

Yamaguchi rose to fame in the 1980s as an English-speaking presenter on a Japanese TV news program where she popularized the image of a new breed of capable and international young women. At the same time, she delighted audiences in a TV commercial in which she raids the refrigerator for a plebeian side-dish of Japanese pickles.

Two of my friends mourned Yamaguchi’s passing to each other on Facebook. I wrote to one of them that I worried they might have a similar exchange about me one day. He did not reply. Like so many of my friends, he was probably just too busy, but the silence reinforced my worries of being overlooked.

Of course, not every death alone should be classified as “lonely.” In fact, Japanese government and academic papers tend to use a more emotionally neutral term, “koritsu shi,” which means isolated death.

The media frenzy likely reflects the country’s ongoing struggle to fill the void in the safety net left by the breakdown of once-strong family and neighborhood ties. There is also confusion about how to get a population that often wants to keep personal difficulties private to reach out to social services.

Japan’s bewilderment as it faces the fraying of traditional family roles is cleverly chronicled in a popular novel, “Death-at-Seventy Law Passed.” The story takes place in Tokyo in 2020. The main character is a housewife exhausted from caring for her bed-ridden, elderly mother-in-law who ceaselessly berates her. The rest of the family members are equally unsympathetic. The husband believes that financially supporting the household absolves him from any other duties; the self-absorbed adult daughter steers clear of her mother to avoid having to pitch in, and the grown son who lives at home rarely leaves his room after being traumatized by losing his job.

They are all familiar types to Japanese today. We are like them ourselves or know people like that. In the book, the government is about to pass a law that would require everyone to be euthanized when they reach the age of 70. The story opens with the housewife fantasizing about how free she will be when the law forces the death of her mother-in-law.

On a recent morning when I was trying to get some sleep while battling jet lag, my 13-year-old son, who was home from boarding school, kept coming into my room and disrupting my periodic slumber. I finally asked him sharply why he was bothering me.

“I didn’t want you to be dead or anything,” he said. It was a precious moment when someone was looking over me.

Kumiko Makihara is a writer and translator.

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