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‘Lonely deaths’ among Japan’s elderly surge amid calls to curb social isolation, learn from Okinawans

Rapid changes in Japanese society, particularly the evolving family unit, have not been countered by the creation of networks to support the rise in the number of elderly individuals who have to fend for themselves, analysts say.

Masataka Nakagawa, a senior researcher with the government-run National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, said there were three main reasons for the high number of kodokushi, or lonely deaths, in Japan.

“There have been big changes in living arrangements within Japanese families,” he told This Week in Asia. “We used to have multiple generations of the family all living together in the past but that is no longer the case as children tend to move away from their parents for work reasons.

“On top of that, the marriage rate has been decreasing for some years and that means there are many single people, even among the elderly now,” he said.

The third factor was the longer average life expectancy, leading to one half of elderly couples – usually women – living alone, Nakagawa said.

The statistics on “lonely deaths” were released by the National Police Agency on Tuesday. They showed that across Japan, 21,716 people died alone in the first three months of the year, with nearly 80 per cent, or 17,034 individuals, aged 65 or older.

The statistics showed that the largest group of such deaths — including by suicide – was among those aged 85 or older, with 4,922 cases.

The report was the first time the agency conducted a comprehensive overview of the issue.

Its release came after the government passed a law in May last year to tackle the problem, which was worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a government group working on the issue, a “lonely death” is defined as a person dying