Lonely in Tokyo

The youth of Tokyo are miserable, but the city’s elderly aren’t faring much better.

Words Alex Hacillo
Illustration Paul Willoughby


In 1977, as a bullet train rolled into a Tokyo station, conductors found a 70 year-old man dead in his seat. A post-mortem showed he had been there for some time, unnoticed and undisturbed by passengers and staff. Trapped in a bizarre, worldly purgatory, endlessly ferried from one bland municipal station to another, his final resting place was an untended, anonymous grave in a state cemetery.

The case was only one of many cases of kodokushi, or solitary death, that began to emerge in the 1970s and 80s, with the press picking up on scores of isolated elderly men and women dying alone — forgotten by their families and neglected by the state. Amidst a growing mood of national self-flagellation, commentators lamented the death of the Japanese family and of neighbourly sociability. How, in the largest city in the world, could a public death be ignored by thousands of impassive commuters?

“In affluent Tokyo, something has gone missing during the forward march of capital.”

Japan’s rapidly ageing population and low fertility rates have played a part in making these solitary deaths more common, but so too has the construction of sprawling, suburban housing developments that ring Tokyo, where communal spaces are lacking, commutes difficult and families distant. As a result, Tokyo’s elderly are dying alone in greater and greater numbers.

Soichiro Koriyama has spent years photographing the locations of kodokushi. “Dying alone is a persistent problem, and it won’t stop getting worse,” he says. “We’ve lost interest in people, people are absorbed in themselves and their own business. I don’t fear kodokushi personally, but it’s a death that’s possible for me.”

Cruel new forms of fraud have emerged in the metropolis, taking advantage of the lonely, affluent old. The ‘it’s me, it’s me’ (ore, ore sagi) fraud involves a young man calling an elderly person at random, pretending to be an estranged grandson or nephew. Claiming to have been in a car crash or accident, the fraudster will beg for money from their victim. This crime is frighteningly common and telling of the extent of isolation in the megacity. Buses in suburban Tokyo now issue regular pre-recorded warnings to their passengers, suggesting that passwords be shared with family members to prevent the fraud.

This sense of pervasive urban atomisation is not confined to the elderly. In 1998, sociologist Tamaki Saito identified a growing, urban social group, hikikomori, consisting of men and women in their late twenties. Hikikomori are characterised as shut-ins, young people unable to find partners who withdraw from society, living with their parents in a state of suspended adolescence.

Hikikomori have very strong features of loneliness, often more so than people with major depression,” says Dr. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist with experience treating Japanese youth. “They often have a very weak or small social network, and don’t feel like they can reach out to other people. If they have an emotional issue they want to discuss, it’s very hard for them to find someone they can count on.”

“Groups of lonely young people meet online, organising group suicides in a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji.”

In the absence of immediate social networks and friendship groups Tokyo’s isolated youth often turn to the impersonal anonymity of the online world. The emergence of online communities dedicated to suicide — often populated by hikikomori — has been a disturbing manifestation of this sense of isolation. Groups of lonely young people meet online, organising group suicides in a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji known as the ‘Sea of Trees’.

Macabre cases such as these invite an undue degree of journalistic voyeurism. There is often an element of sensationalism to Tokyo’s apparent suicide problem. A variety of western commentators have indulged in a spot of armchair psychoanalysis, invoking images of defeated samurai committing seppuku, or Japanese pilots ploughing into American warships. Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of Japan’s most popular cartoon series’, told one reporter that the Japanese were ‘a nation of children,’ infantilised by the trauma of defeat in the Second World War, unable to function in an isolated society and thus prone to suicide.

Aokigahara — The Sea of Trees

Solitude and suicide are certainly profound problems in Tokyo. This is a city and a society with between 280,000 and 700,000 hikikomori, where the old fear facing death alone, and where familial support networks are small; the number of children per couple has sunk to 1.39. “There are hypotheses that argue that this is specific to Japan,” says Dr Teo. “Many argue that there is more of a tendency towards conformism in Japan, or intense co-dependency between mothers and sons. But we’re beginning to think about how it might exist beyond Japan. In fact, we know it’s not limited to Japan. We’ve seen cases in culturally distinct societies in France, Spain and Italy.”

The sensationalism surrounding suicide and solitude as particularly Japanese phenomena obscures broader patterns of atomisation and isolation common to large urban areas in the developed world. As early as 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s pioneering work, Suicide, identified a pervasive sense of anomie, or rootlessness, afflicting the inhabitants of Europe’s growing industrial centres. Shifted from the organic social and economic roles of rural society, the urban proletariat lived a seemingly meaningless existence as cogs within an anonymous, urban machine.

The sense of alienation engendered by the increasing regulation and formalisation of urban society was again picked up by British sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott in their 1957 book Family and Kinship in East London. Observing the destruction of the chaotic East End, and the movement of people to suburban housing developments in the aftermath of the Second World War, Young and Willmott argued that the new estates broke up a tight-knit community. The isolated former east-enders were not only more vulnerable to mental illness but also developed different notions of identity and self-worth. Rather than defining themselves by who they were as individuals, Young and Willmott saw a shift towards forms of identity predicated on material consumption and ownership of commodities.

Increasing isolation, both in Tokyo and beyond, has been intimately connected to a process of development within the megacities. The maelstrom of informal dealings, kinship links and general chaos of Kinshasa, Manila or Lagos is swept away on a tide of organised, homogenised industrial capitalism, as rickety slums are replaced with sprawling suburban developments. With them go the personal networks, once solidified by proximity and necessary for survival, in place of integration and assimilation by organised public and private institutions.

In many ways, perceptions of isolation are defined by a form of idealised memory of this earlier period, of poverty and the informal economy. Isolation is also exacerbated during periods of economic depression, with unemployment leaving the individual without the social network they would once have enjoyed. In 1998, following economic collapse in Japan, the number of suicides increased by a third in a single year. Hikikomori had their genesis in this ‘Lost Decade’ — the urban youth of Tokyo, unable to find long-term work but lacking the extensive social and familial connections provided by a more informal urban landscape.

Average number of people per household

Rising isolation and loneliness are global problems, and are reflected by the demographics of the largest cities in the developed world. In his book Population Ten Billion, Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, describes solitary living as part of a long process of urbanisation. The number of people living alone globally has rocketed even faster than the number of urban dwellers, increasing by 81 per cent in the 15 years from 1996 to 2011. We might see this increase as something positive: people who live alone are not necessarily lonely. It is easy to falsely romanticise the earlier urban, familial setting as a place of communal conviviality, of unlocked back doors and the solidarity of shared poverty. More often forgotten are the forms of social exclusion, stifling patriarchal control, communal bloodletting and the oppressive, overbearing ‘carbon monoxide’ atmospheres described by R.D. Laing in post-war Glasgow.

The issue at hand in the modern megacity is more complex than the simplistic, overworn narrative of a lost paradise of familial warmth. The great suburbs of Tokyo which swallowed rice paddies and fields remain places of loneliness due to deeper, structural factors. The decline of industrial work, of organised labour, of religiosity and early marriage has left inhabitants with a much diminished civil society and social universe.

“Hidden are the armies of casual labour, the transient office workers, the insecure workforce, predatory capital that chews up and spits out trade unions.”

Glass and steel monuments to post-industrial capitalism pepper the centre of Tokyo. They represent a form of economic organisation that insists on a natural, inevitable phase of development, where the unchained market razes slums and replaces them with comfortable suburban housing. There are, of course, profound flaws in this cornucopian image of a consumer’s paradise. Hidden are the armies of casual labour, the transient office workers, the insecure workforce, predatory capital that chews up and spits out trade unions. In affluent Tokyo something has gone missing during the forward march of capital, something the free market seems incapable of supplying. Millions lie outside of social networks, without the support needed to cope with the loss of a job, the death of a friend, or the infirmity of old age.

Tokyo cityscape

Perhaps this increased solitude is the future of the megacities, of capitalism, and the price we must pay for our affluence. The future of all developing metropolises may be one of avoided glances on the underground, anonymous throngs of suited workers filing into plate glass buildings, of lonely twentysomethings immersed in internet culture. After all, few would will a return to the poverty and insecurity of earlier times. Or perhaps there is another way, a way of organising post-industrial society that facilitates co-operation and sociability, one that includes, rather than neglects, the young and the old.


This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s second issue: Megacities.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.

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