Kazuyoshi Otsuka didn’t talk to his neighbours much. They knew he worked for the Shochiku movie studio, where the directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu achieved global renown. They knew he was a costumer, because he used to complain to them about having to argue with famous Japanese actresses over whether their outfits clashed.
They also knew he moved into the Atago apartment blocks, a huge housing complex in the suburbs of Tokyo, in 1971, the year after they were built, with his wife and two sons. The Japanese economy was officially booming, and Otsuka was a fashionable man about town, partial to wearing a neck scarf and buying his coffee beans from a specialty store, even if he otherwise kept to himself.
In 1989, he was struck by a subarachnoid haemorrhage that left him paralysed in his left hand and leg. Some time after he was discharged from hospital and returned home, his wife and children left. Alone, he took to sitting on a bench outside the apartment building. Though he didn’t much discuss it with the neighbours, he once admitted he regretted how life had turned out. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Unable to walk far, Otsuka relied on a meal service. One day, two years ago, his regular delivery man recalls Otsuka being in worse shape than usual. Three days later, there was no answer at the door.
The delivery man informed the police, who arrived at Atago with the fire department, climbed a ladder to the third floor and broke through the window into the room. Otsuka had been spitting blood, and died alone.
No family members came, and nobody claimed his body. The municipality cremated him and placed his remains with a local temple. Otsuka’s nameplate is still on the metal door of his apartment, above a mailbox slot now sealed with tape.
Toei Atago Complex is a sprawling set of five-storey apartment blocks in Tama City in the Tokyo suburbs, about 30 minutes on the express Keio line from Shinjuku station. The complex rings a hillside and and contains 1,894 units across five blocks – one of hundreds of similar social housing developments that dot the seemingly endless Tokyo outskirts.
Many Japanese know the Atago complex as the setting for Whisper of the Heart, an animated film from Studio Ghibli written by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki that topped the domestic box office in 1995. The romantic film depicts the lives of junior high school students whose imaginations are transported through writing stories to each other.
The real Atago complex, however, is home to almost no young people. Japan’s population is ageing rapidly, though not so much in Tokyo, where just under a quarter of residents are older than 65. But in the Tama City suburb the proportion is 29.6%, and is expected to rise to 32.6% over the next decade – increasing more than twice as fast as the Tokyo average.
The number who live in social housing, meanwhile, is higher still by far: approximately two-thirds of the residents of blocks like Atago are over 65. Tokyo’s social housing blocks are becoming de facto retirement homes.
That is a problem for a number of reasons, not least that they weren’t designed for this purpose. The Atago complex was built on a hill, and is accessed by sloping ramps. It has five floors, but there are no lifts, only stairs. Many weaker residents find navigating this terrain very difficult. There are no nearby supermarkets to buy food and newspapers, just a Seven Eleven convenience store, and no clinics or pharmacies within easy access, though the local hospital is well-equipped to handle older patients.
Nor are there enough children, teenagers or young couples to keep the atmosphere lively and to drive demand for services and commerce. The last supermarket serving Atago closed in 2001. The nearby elementary school, Tama City Nishi Atago, which opened in 1976 and hit peak attendance of 714 children in 1982, saw its intake fall to 64 students before it finally closed its doors for good in March 2016.
Toshio Matsumoto, 70, an officer of the Atago housing committee, says it isn’t just death that dampens the mood at Atago: “The people who come after the deceased are also grey, and the elderly will not be rosy in the future unless they get young people into the complex.”
“The only thing I enjoy every day is to drink and smoke,” one 73-year-old man says. He worked in a fresh fish store when he was young, and has lived alone in Atago since he lost his mother 18 years ago. “My feet are lame and I have a cane. Three years from now, I’ll be dead.” He turns and walks away, slowly climbing with his cane up the inclined path towards the buildings.
“I guess I’m not alone after all,” jokes Kaichiro Tanaka, 73, who also lives by himself at Atago. He drops by the community centre, Atago Kaede Kan, every day to chat and smoke cigarettes. Once a week he and his friends gather to sing their favourite songs at karaoke.
He makes the best of what is a difficult life: Tanaka relies on his pension, which specifies less than 1,000 yen per day for food. “You can’t live like that,” he says. In 2007, his wife’s kidneys began to fail her, and for three years he tended to her bodily needs while she was confined to bed. After her death, the only relative he now sees is his daughter, who meets him once a year at his wife’s grave. She has never visited his apartment at Atago.
“Hey, look over there,” Tanaka says, gesturing with his eyes at the lounge in the community centre. “If you think, ‘Hmm, that person hasn’t been here lately,’ it’s commonly the case that they’re dead.” Last summer, residents on his wing reported a strange smell to police. Tanaka attended the scene. The woman had died in bed. Tanaka can’t remember her name. He only knew she was about 80.
Social housing was built across Japan from the 1950s onwards in an effort to give families high-quality homes after the devastation of the second world war. The Public Housing Act of 1951 made nearly 80% of households eligible for some form of subsidised home.
In the mid-1990s, however, a shift in housing policy had major and perhaps unintended consequences. In an attempt to stimulate the housing market, the government tried to guide the young generation of workers away from public housing and into private housing. It revised the Public Housing Act, making public housing more accessible for elderly or disabled people. But it also set strict requirements for younger people who lived there: if your income exceeded a certain threshold, you would be evicted. If you refused, you were charged rent – at potentially up to twice the market rate, depending on your income.
The goal was to make public housing a safety net for elderly, low-income and socially vulnerable people. The effect, however, has been to drive up the cost of private rentals, while making social housing off-limits for most people: eligibility fell from 80% of households in 1951 to 25% after 1996.
And it has turned public housing into a kind of ghetto for poor and elderly people who rely on pensions and can’t afford private rents.
It also forces young adults to leave home once they get a job. A four-person family cannot stay in public housing if they earn more than 4.47m yen (about £32,000), which means that even a part-time job sometimes means moving away from home. The parents stay behind, and the demographics tick another notch older.
Yet another unintended consequence is that Tokyo’s social housing blocks have become the focal point for a phenomenon that has obsessed the national media: kodokushi, or “solitary deaths”. According to Matsumoto, about 20 people died alone at Atago in 2018.
While the Tokyo government does not disclose information on individual cases of solitary death, figures show that 501 people died alone in public housing blocks like Atago last year – more than one a day – and 2,344 over the last five years.
“Solitary deaths are increasing,” confirms Matsumoto. He says the problem started to worsen about 12 years ago. It is almost common now, he says, and residents who live alone are haunted by it.
The Atago community association has taken steps to fight back against loneliness. Its Omushibi Project invites residents to make rice balls together, and every summer there is a dance for the Bon festival.
The Tama municipality, too, is helping. It signed an agreement with 29 local delivery companies that provide services to Atago – such as newspapers or bento lunch boxes – to watch over elderly people. The companies agree to notify the authorities if they don’t receive a response at the door.
In response to requests from Atago residents, there is also now a “mobile supermarket” that sells food from a car, coming three times a week at 10.30am for 40 minutes.
The moves are arguably more than token, but with so few young people living in the units there is a limit to the social and commercial activity that can be sustained. When younger generations do move in, the income restrictions mean they are often low-income single mothers – whose childcare and work commitments mean they rarely have time to join in community activities.
“I have a sense of crisis,” says Takamoto Komachi, director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Housing Management Division. “I want to prevent solitary death as much as possible.”
Komachi says the Tokyo government is starting to consider efforts to reduce loneliness, such as improved patrol systems and collaboration with the welfare department. In 2002, staff began making regular visits to social housing complexes, with the ability to enter the room of elderly residents without permission to check on their safety, after the death of an 90-year-old mother and her sixtysomething daughter were blamed on a multi-day delay in accessing the flat.
“In some cases, [the patrols] saved an emergency call and spared an ambulance – I think there is a certain effect. But I don’t think it’s connected to reducing” the problem of solitary deaths, Komachi says.
Mitsunori Ishida, a sociology professor at Waseda University who studies the changing demographics of Tokyo’s social housing blocks, says: “The people who leave are strong, while those who remain, and the new people who move in, are socially vulnerable. There is a contradiction: although elderly people living alone need the mutual support of the local residents, there is a shortage of community.
“It is hard to leave the situation over to the voluntary efforts of the residents. Japan’s housing welfare policy [changes] were not a subsidy for [private] rent – they were a means to consolidate low-income and disabled people into public housing.”
He adds: “If residents of collective housing are diverse, the concentration of welfare problems and creation of community ought to improve. We need a lot of support from the local government and the social welfare council. “
That help may be a while coming, but it is rising up the political agenda. In April this year, the opposition Japanese Communist party voiced its concern in the House of Representatives construction committee. “As a result of this reform, we have no young dual-employed couples” living in public housing, said one member. “Yet even now, public housing is ageing – and it will only get worse.”
As for Tanaka, he is determined to remain cheerful. He used to say hi to his neighbour who died, even though she didn’t respond. “Maybe she didn’t care about socialising with her neighbours as she got older,” he says. “Nobody can imagine themselves in 20 years. So it is important to enjoy oneself at least in this moment, right now. People ask, ‘Are you worried about lonely death?’ I am prepared.
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