Plague of Lonesomes

The Japanese, adding to their rich and ancient vocabulary of loss, have given it a name: kodokushi, or “lonely death,” meaning the quiet but messy end of a solitary life. With family far away and neighbors respectfully or distractedly distant, a decomposing body can sear its dark shape into the dirty mattress or the floor boards of a home, to be found days, weeks, or even years later.

Dying alone is seen as a character flaw—an imperfection growing somewhere deep inside of you that, provided it is caught in time, can be rooted out or zapped away.

Multiple factors over the past few decades have made Japan ripe for the kodokushi coinage: an astounding 26 percent of the Japanese population is now over the age of sixty-five, the result of a post-war baby boom and a long-declining birth rate. Elders increasingly live longer and live alone, separate from the daughters and daughters-in-law who would once have been their caregivers. And the Japanese economy took a nasty hit in the 1990s (soon after kodokushi first came into use), pushing aging adults out of the work force and relegating them to poverty, isolation, and less respected roles in society.