Media watch: Even celebrities die alone

Yoko Shimada

On July 25, the Japanese actor Yoko Shimada died in a Tokyo hospital. She was 69 years old. Some older people may remember Shimada as the female lead in the 1980 American TV miniseries Shogun, which was based on James Clavell’s bestselling novel about Edo-era Japan and an Englishman, played in the series by Richard Chamberlain, who served the shogun. Shimada received a Golden Globe Award for her performance and became famous worldwide as a result. She was already a star in Japan and the acclaim made her even more of one. Afterwards, she was busy, and even did more work in Hollywood, but eventually she faded from the Japanese public’s consciousness, partly due to the usual indignities the industry imposes on female actors as they age, and partly due to Shimada’s pride. 

In 2018, Shimada was diagnosed with rectal cancer and refused to undergo chemotherapy. Realizing she might soon die, she initiated a final project, a movie called Ever Garden, in which she played a dying woman. It was filmed in Kagoshima Prefecture in the summer of 2021 on a shoestring budget, with Shimada providing her own wardrobe. She was on a lot of medication at the time and often had trouble breathing and even eating. According to an article in the Dec. 21 Asahi Shimbun, at one point, Shimada’s character was supposed to enter a lake, and the director, knowing how difficult that would be for her in her condition, suggested she just dip her feet in the cold water, but Shimada insisted on immersing herself fully. A co-star remarked that everyone on set was so impressed by how determined Shimada was to get the scene right. This incident is obviously included in the article to show what a consummate professional Shimada was, even if such an act was physically agonizing.

The movie opened in theaters at the end of 2021, but Shimada could not attend the premiere or any related events because she was in the hospital, where she did not receive any visitors and communicated to the outside world only through texts. When she died, she died alone. An anonymous acquaintance told Asahi that following her death, the Shibuya Ward office in Tokyo contacted the actor’s relatives listed in their records, but no one came to claim her body. The source elaborated by saying that before she died, Shimada had told others that she had no family to speak of after her own mother died. In addition, she had been going through financial difficulties for some years, so after Shibuya Ward kept her body for two weeks without any contact from kin, they cremated her at their own expense in accordance with the Welfare Law, which states that if the deceased has no family, or if they do and that family is insolvent, the local government will handle the postmortem processing. In most cases, this means a social worker or interested acquaintance can carry out a funeral and cremation ceremony that is paid for by the local government, even if the deceased was not approved for government assistance before their death. The local government will also take care of transporting and storing the body beforehand. When Asahi called Shibuya Ward to ask if this was the case with Shimada, the representative said they were not free to talk about it, but the previously mentioned source confirmed that everything related to Shimada’s postmortem process was paid for by the local government. 

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s welfare bureau, in fiscal 2021 it processed 8,600 deaths in a similar fashion, an increase of about 1,500 over the number they processed five years earlier. They project that the number will be even greater for fiscal 2022, which ends in March. What this statistic points to is that more and more people are dying without heirs or even close family. An economics researcher told the newspaper that Shimada’s case highlights this development in the starkest terms—if even a once renowned personality dies alone and her body is then relegated to the local government for processing because no one cares, what does that mean for lesser known people who have, for one reason or another, dropped out of society and with it the orbit of loved ones? Under such circumstances it is more important than ever for the government to promote end-of-life planning, and not just because such lack of planning leads to unwanted expense for taxpayers, but also for the individuals’ own peace of mind as they enter their twilight years. The atomization of society (not just in Japan—it is a worldwide phenomenon) has lead to a kind of blanket anonymity that translates as crushing loneliness for seniors, especially those who are not well off and live realtively long lives. Of course, each person has the right to live how they want, but for the most part the isolation that many seniors experience as they reach the end is a function of the revered idea of “self-responsibility” that dominates modern life, and which supposedly relieves the authorities of its responsibilities. As Shimada’s example shows, however, the government is more often stuck with a dead body and the expense of handling its disposal. 

The saddest outcome of this policy, which assumes that family will take care of old people, is that seniors have no public alternative to living in isolation. Japan has no rational, affordable nursing/retirement home policy for seniors who are not rich or on welfare, despite the insurance system that has been in place for more than 20 years to address this issue. Some local governments, according to Asahi, have already come to this realization and are actively working on end-of-life support for their citizens, but the details are still being worked out. In any case, public interest doesn’t seem to be that strong, since most people don’t consider their old age until it’s upon them. The Cabinet Office reports that as of Oct. 21, the total population of Japan was 125 million, of which 36 million are over 65, meaning 29 percent of the population, the highest portion in the world. Fifteen percent of senior men and 22 percent of senior women live by themselves.

Apparently, an acquaintance of Yoko Shimada did come to the Shibuya Ward office and picked up her ashes. The acquaintance told Asahi that she interred them in her own family grave.

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