Where the new figures for household size in the Tokyo Metropolitan District intersect with the prevailing zeitgeist in two ways.
The first is the reporting of the increasing number, as if it were a surprise, of famous persons dying alone (kodokushi) and not being found for several days or even weeks.
The first really shocking case was of the former porn actress, television talent, then later blogger and AIDS activist Iijima Ai, who was found dead in her home three weeks after her last blog post in December 2008. The 2009 discovery of the body of longtime film and television superstar Ohara Reiko in her home two weeks after anyone last heard from her further shocked the country. Newscaster and television talent Yamaguchi Mie was found dead alone last year under similar circumstances.
Of course, with the greater number of persons living alone, that the number of persons dying alone should be rising should not surprising. Given the anonymity of the big cities and the hyper-sensitivity over respecting a person's privacy, that persons are not being found dead for days or weeks should also not be surprising.
That the number of persons dying alone at home has not, until recently, been a societal obsession can in part be traced to the incredible rates of hospitalization of the very ill and very old, with over 82% of deaths occurring in a hospital and an addition 3% in special homes for the aged (J - page 9).
Iijima, Ohara and Yamaguchi were 36, 62 and 51 years of age respectively at the time of their deaths. Both Ohara and Yamaguchi had spent many years prior to their deaths caring for aged and incapacitated parents.
It is in the latter situation that the new figures on the size of households gives folks the heeby-jeebies, though in the case of Ohara and Yamaguchi, the parents each had been caring for had either been moved to an elder care facility or died.
In recent weeks there have been a spate of stories about caregivers dying, leaving their disabled or senile charges to die of starvation, thirst or cold. The most shocking was a case in mid-February of a 45 year-old woman dying, leaving her four year-old mentally retarded son to die a few days later of an as yet unrevealed cause, despite visits to the home by what were supposed to be help providers. In more recent days, news organizations have been reporting on couples or parent-child homes where the deaths of the caregiver have left the other, incapacitated resident to die, either slowly or quickly, from lack of care. Despite the fact that these pairs of individuals are not technically dying alone, these types of double deaths are being classed kodokushi.
With Japanese enjoying, if that can be the term, extended lifespans, and the chances of one member of a two-person household being seriously incapacitated in some way increasing, the number of these kinds of double deaths is sure to increase unless civil society or local government develop ways on keeping tabs on caregivers and their charges. A great deal of help is currently available. With the society as a whole aging, however, the capacity for society or local governments to continue to provide help services will diminish.
Some companies, such as the ALSOK corporation, advertise home surveillance cameras for younger relatives to keep tabs on the status of their elders. The concept seems way too creepy and invasive to come into common usage, however. This may change. Indeed, the installation of cameras might come to be seen as a natural part of the aging process -- that once you are past a certain age, you will never have a moment's privacy again, even in your own home.