As Japanese society ages, the country's mortality rate is climbing. However, issues surrounding funeral rites are also drastically changing for those with weakened family ties or a background of poverty.
After another unsuccessful job-hunting day in late May 2016 at a local "Hello Work" employment agency, a 55-year-old Tokyo man came home to find his 84-year-old father collapsed face-up beside his duvet. He quickly checked his father's pulse, but found that he was already dead. In the traditional Japanese room of the old house where the two lived together, the man was suddenly overcome with fear:
"Not being able to pay for the funeral will look terrible..."
The man was unable to tell his only sister that their father had passed away -- he had lied to her that he was employed full time to save face. He really lived off money he made as a day laborer, and he had only about 30,000 yen to his name. His father had little savings, and he couldn't stop thinking about how his mother's funeral rites 13 years before had cost 2 million yen.
The man quickly boiled water and wiped down his father's body with a damp towel, but after that he was simply at a loss over what to do. All he could do was scream his apologies to his father inside his heart as day after day passed with him doing nothing about the body. He thought, "Today will be the day I go to the police," but with growing conflict inside of him, the body started to decompose. He set up air fresheners around the room and even sprayed insecticide.
Each day when he left the house, he had to pass the tatami room where his father lay, and tried his best not to look at the dead body that it contained. Before he knew it, two and half months had passed. Then, one evening in August 2016, when he returned home after drinking beer at a nearby restaurant, light poured from a room that was supposed to be empty. The man's sister, unable to contact their father, had become worried and came to the house. Unable to face her, the man fled the scene.
During the day, he rested in public places like parks, and spent 13 sleepless nights away from home. When reached his limit of physically and mentally exhaustion, he returned to the house only once. Immediately afterward, he was surrounded by detectives and arrested on suspicion of abandoning a corpse.
After graduating from college, the man was hired at a health food company, and at 38 years old, he started his own company with a colleague. It went bankrupt seven years ago. Losing his job and livelihood, he was quietly welcomed to live side-by-side with his father. After becoming unable to leave the house, his father accompanied him to a psychosomatic clinic, and nights were spent together around the dinner table. While they did not engage in conversation, the man recovered enough to be able to leave the house for part-time work. It was around that time that his father passed away.
The man's father had loved to go visit his grandchildren at the man's sister's house. When he was invited to stay overnight with the family, however, he refused, saying that he had to look after his son. When the man heard that from his sister who came to the police station to see him, he was overcome with sobs.
In October 2016, a court convicted him with a suspended sentence. The man's sister took their father's remains, and plans to place them beside their mother's at the family grave as early as this autumn.
While he has his own excuses for his actions, such as his belief that the oldest son should be responsible for funeral rites and that his sister did not have it easy either raising children, he can't forgive himself for not realizing how deeply his sister cared for their father. It wasn't as though he had cut off communication with her completely, but he had tried to keep a distance between them because he wanted to hide his unemployment.
Every day the man prays for forgiveness in front of the Buddhist altar in their home where he placed a small brown envelope filled with his father's ashes. He has come to accept his own weakness. "If possible, I would still like to be put to rest beside my father in the family grave," he revealed. Going forward, he plans to face his sister frankly, and work to make arrangements for after his own death.