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Japan heatstroke death toll hits 162; lack of air conditioning cited

People are seen fanning themselves amid the sweltering heat, on the morning of Aug. 2, 2019, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- At least 162 people have died from confirmed or suspected heatstroke in Japan this summer amid punishing hot temperatures following end of the rainy season, calculations by the Mainichi Shimbun show.

With a large number of cases taking place indoors when air-conditioning was not used, measures against further deaths are being sought.

On the morning of Aug. 7, officers from Tanashi Police Station in western Tokyo discovered two women dead in their home, after receiving a report from a neighbor that 10 days' worth of newspapers had piled up.

The women appeared to be a mother and her daughter, aged in their 90s and 60s. Results from an official autopsy show the daughter died from an illness around the end of July, and that her mother, who had been under her daughter's care, died shortly thereafter.

Although the elder woman's cause of death was not immediately clear, the temperature in the room the women were found climbed as high as 38 degrees Celsius. It was said there were no traces of an air conditioner having been used at the property, and it is suspected the elder woman died from heatstroke.

Residents in the neighborhood said they hadn't seen the two outside recently. It was said that the pair occasionally had had bento lunchboxes delivered to their home.

A member of the department for elderly residents' support in their city said, "People here look out for older people and we are implementing structures to detect abnormal changes early, but we want to think of more effective means, too."

According to national calculations by the Mainichi Shimbun, 95 of the 162 people who had died of suspected or confirmed heatstroke this summer as of Aug. 8 were found indoors, while 55 were found outdoors. There were multiple incidents of people being found collapsed not just in living rooms or bedrooms, but also in their bathrooms.

The findings show that among the 95 people found indoors, 62 people, or over 60%, were known to have either had air-conditioning but not used it, or did not have it installed. There also appear to be two cases in which symptoms developed despite using air-conditioning.

Autopsies carried out by the Tokyo Medical Examiner's Office on people in the capital's 23 special wards were said to have shown that over 90% of deaths indoors from heatstroke were of those who either did not use air-conditioning or did not have it set up.

However, most of the individuals discovered outdoors were said to have been found in their gardens or in fields. There were also cases of people who had collapsed while inside polytunnels used to cultivate plants.

Some victims collapsed while riding motorbikes or bicycles. Their symptoms appeared to have developed while they were on the vehicles.

Additionally, there was also a report of a person who died while practicing a dance in a character costume. In one other case, a person apparently succumbed to heatstroke after drinking alcohol and then falling asleep in their car while it was parked in the garage.

On Aug. 8 in Koto Ward, a 50-year-old man working at the construction site for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic International Broadcasting Center was found collapsed, and was subsequently confirmed dead at a hospital. The Metropolitan Police Department's Tokyo Wangan Police Station says it's possible he died from heatstroke.

In Tokyo, where the rainy season ended on July 29, hot midsummer days have continued unabated. Yasushi Asari, head of Kitasato University Hospital's Emergency & Disaster Medical Center, reflected, "Ambulance dispatches for elderly people in the mornings have increased.

"It seems possible that a large number of people are developing heatstroke because they're not used to leaving air-conditioners on overnight, so they turn it off before they go to bed, and then as they sleep the temperature rises.

"As we age, our ability to regulate our own body temperature deteriorates, and there are also cases of people not perceiving changes in temperature, or that they're dehydrated. At the same time, it's important to keep the air conditioner on while setting the temperature at a level that doesn't leave you too cold."

(Japanese original by Ikuko Ando, Asako Takeuchi and Suzuko Araki, City News Department)

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