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538 people in Tokyo, Osaka suffered 'lonely deaths' in 2017-2019 while living with family

Skyscrapers in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward are seen from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter in April 2020. The building seen in the center is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

OSAKA -- A total of 538 people in Tokyo's 23 special wards and the city of Osaka died at home but were not found immediately after their deaths between 2017 and 2019 even though they were living with their families, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    In some 30% of such cases reported in Osaka, the finding of the person's death was delayed because their family members had dementia. As Japan is seeing a rapidly aging society, it is believed that similar cases are occurring across the country. Experts are calling for the need to beef up support measures by the central and local governments.

    Some municipalities including Tokyo's 23 wards and the city of Osaka have a medical examiners system in place, in which specialized doctors check bodies to find out the cause of death when dead people are found not inside hospital facilities if police determine that there is less likelihood that the person was involved in a crime. In recent years, the conditions of isolated elderly citizens are being investigated so that the system can be implemented at welfare facilities.

    The Osaka prefectural office of medical examiners, which has jurisdiction over the city of Osaka, classifies a person's death in cases where the bodies are not found for four or more days even though they lived with someone else as a "lonely death while living with others." The office analyzed the cases reported in 2018 for the first time including their causes of death and published the findings in the Kinki region society of public health's academic journal in June 2020.

    The Mainichi requested that the office conduct research on such cases that were reported over the three years up to 2019. We also asked the Tokyo metropolitan office of medical examiners that administers the capital's 23 wards to look into the cases under the same conditions as Osaka and aggregated data.

    As a result, a total of 90 people -- 58 men and 32 women -- in Osaka had died a "lonely death while living with others" over the three years -- 24 people in 2017, 35 in 2018 and 31 in 2019. The most common reason why the finding of the body was delayed among these cases was that the family member these people were living with had dementia, as reported in 28 cases. Others were due to family members being shut-ins or bed-ridden.

    Meanwhile in Tokyo's 23 wards, the total came out to be 448 people (286 men and 162 women) broken down as 133 people in 2017, 163 in 2018 and 152 in 2019. While the detailed causes have not been examined, the figure had more than doubled since the medical examiner's office started taking statistics in 2003, which then stood at 68 people. It's believed that the numbers are continuing to rise as society ages.

    While similar cases have been reported across Japan, no research on a nationwide scale exists, and the details of the actual situation remain unclear.

    An official from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare commented, "When people are living together, they tend to fall outside of the subjects to be watched over (by authorities). Cases of people becoming isolated without being noticed by others will likely increase as communities become less connected due to an aging society and nuclear families."

    (Japanese original by Akihiko Tsuchida and Kumiko Yasumoto, Osaka City News Department)

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