Media watch: Impossible to leave without a trace

For years, even decades, the big story surrounding Japan’s aging society is how to pay for people’s twilight years when so many grow old at exactly the same time. That time is upon us right now, and the story is changing. The dankai no sedai, or Japan’s version of the baby boom generation, is shorter in length than it is in other developed countries, technically comprising people born in the late 1940s, since the Japanese government successfully implemented a birth control system in the 1950s to address lingering postwar shortages. So while the bad news was that this huge cohort would all reach their dotage at the same time, once they started dying off, the fiscal challenges would subside.

But now we have another problem, which is that all these people are dying at the same time, and owing the the atomization of Japanese society a good portion of them have not made proper preparations because of poverty, lack of heirs, and no connections to their communities. An article in the March 29 Asahi Shimbun reported on a survey conducted by the interior ministry that found as of October 2021, local governments reported they were in possession of 60,000 sets of remains (i.e., ashes) of people who had died alone and without a will or any immediate contact information for heirs or relatives. Almost all of these remains were being stored in public facilities and had yet to be formally interred. Some were even being kept by private companies hired to clean up the living quarters of people who died alone. The survey report also points out that this number did not represent all the remains that were unclaimed, since ashes that had already been removed to temples or other religious facilities were not included. 

Local governments are thus in a difficult position, and the ministry identifies the problem as being due to “no unified regulation to confirm the desire of relatives [of the deceased] to accept the remains,” and thus local governments don’t know what to do with them if they can’t locate any relatives. According to the law, “relatives” in this case legally extend to the “third degree,” and thus include uncles, aunts, and even great grandchildren. However, even if local governments do contact these relatives, if they don’t respond to the request to claim the remains, the local government can do nothing. And that seems to be happening in quite a few cases. Beyond the 60,000 sets of remains that were in storage, the number of dead individuals that were unclaimed between April 2018 and October 2021 nationwide amounted to 106,000. This translates as a huge burden on local governments, which have to spend money on cremation, storage, and sometimes even funerals. They can ask heirs to reimburse them when those heirs are found, but the heirs cannot be legally compelled to comply. Often, it also costs money just to locate these heirs.

The survey also found that in more than half the cases where remains were unclaimed, the deceased had no cash on hand, meaning no cash on their person or within their living space. On average, local governments spent ¥210,000 per unclaimed body, for a total of ¥10 billion over the three year period. The amount of cash “left over” that the local governments could claim was only ¥2.15 billion. It should be noted, however, that any funds the deceased held in a financial institution could not be claimed by local governments, unless the deceased had left a notarized will specifically allowing the local government to access these funds. Without such a document, the money would legally go to the deceased’s next of kin, and if no heirs were found or, if they were found but declined the money for whatever reason, the funds would just remain in the bank. The central government has proposed laws that will allow it to claim these funds if they remain untouched after a certain length of time, but in any case local governments cannot access them. The welfare ministry, working with the Ministry of Justice and the finance ministry, is trying to get banks to ease their own rules in order to allow local governments to access these dormant funds if no relative can be found, but banks seem to be stubborn on the matter, probably because they hope to claim them for themselves. 

A different article in the same newspaper explained one case of a 79-year-old man who died alone in the city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. He had no close friends, and after a while the city welfare office, using the family register system, located a relative who lived in the Tohoku region. When they contacted the relative, the person said it would be “difficult” to retrieve the remains. As it happens, the deceased had made a hand-written will of sorts that instructed the person who found his body to use whatever money was in his bank account to pay for any post-mortem costs. At the time of death, the account contained ¥200,000. The city had already used ¥110,000 to cremate the body and store the remains, so the bank account could cover it, but the bank would not allow the city to withdraw the money; it required permission from an heir, and, apparently, the relative in Tohoku wanted nothing to do with it, so the city had no access to these funds. As already mentioned, It is now the welfare ministry’s mission to change the law to allow local governments to access these bank accounts after attempts to contact relatives successfully and gain their permission have been exhausted, but who knows if and when such a regulation will be realized. 

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