It’s a morbid but necessary job in ageing Japan: to clean up apartments where elderly people have died alone.

In March, the body of an elderly man was found on the floor of his apartment in downtown Tokyo.

Neighbours hadn’t noticed the octogenarian’s absence. His bank made the rent payments on time, his family didn’t visit, and the only reason for the body’s discovery was a slight smell that troubled the tenant in the flat below. 

He had been dead for a month.

Hirotsugu Masuda (above), a special cleaning worker, prays before entering a flat in Tokyo where an 85-year-old man was only found a month after he had died. Below, Masuda and his team clean up the garbage-filled apartment. – Reuters

In rapidly ageing Japan, more people are dying alone and unnoticed in a country where more than 5 million elderly people live alone and increasingly isolated lives. 

For these so-called “lonely deaths”, or kodokushi, families and landlords in Tokyo are increasingly turning to Hirotsugu Masuda and his clean-up crew to salvage apartments where the occupant’s body lay undiscovered for days or weeks.

“This has started becoming a bit more common in the world and it’s become more recognised that there’s this sort of job,” says Masuda, whose services are required 3-4 times a week in summer when bodies decompose faster.

When Masuda’s team turns up at the Tokyo apartment, police have taken away the corpse but body fluids have seeped into the floor. Flies buzz around a cooker filled with rice gone bad. Old calendars and papers are strewn in rooms untouched for years.

Masuda and his team have their work cut out for them. Above, flies crowd around a window and, below, the bathroom is filthy. – Reuters

Workers wearing protective gear spray the apartment with insect repellent, using gloved hands to pack the trash in boxes. The six-hour exercise is conducted discreetly to avoid upsetting neighbours. The crew tells onlookers they are moving house.

Masuda’s firm works almost exclusively with “lonely deaths”, charging between ¥81,000 (RM2,494) and ¥341,000 (RM10,497) depending on apartment size.

When they are done, incense and flowers are placed where the body had been found, with the man’s photo put where his head had been. Victims forgotten by families are not given a funeral and their remains are interred in unmarked graves.

It's a phenomenon that experts say will soon become the norm. “There's likely 40,000 of these cases and we think that in 10 years, it's likely to go over 100,000 cases,” says Hideto Kone, an NGO official working on such cases. Data shows victims are more likely to be male.

Yoshie Fukukara, landlord of the apartment where the tenant was found dead, still finds it hard to believe. “I didn’t think it would happen here,” says the 77-year-old. – Reuters

The 85-year-old man's watch and discarded letters will be cleaned up by Masuda and his team. Medical experts foresee a rise in cases of elderly people dying alone, as the country's ageing population increases. – Reuters