Down and Out in Tokyo: Japan Grapples With Social Angst

A downcast Takaharu Watanabe shakes his head as he contemplates what happened in his small Tokyo apartment building early last month. "If I'd known ... I would have brought them food," says the apprentice cook, who works in a Chinese restaurant.

Mr. Watanabe had no idea that his neighbors, Hiroko Sera and her middle-aged son Toshio, were quietly starving. Early findings suggest their deaths resulted from malnutrition or conditions complicated by it, authorities say.

In Tokyo, perhaps the cleanest, most efficient, and most economically egalitarian city in the world, death by starvation seems impossible. That is one reason the Sera case, and another similar incident, in which an elderly couple died in impoverished circumstances, have troubled some Tokyoites. They are wondering how their society is changing.

The cases hint at the alienation that some Japanese are now experiencing. It is becoming more common for Japanese to break away from their families and live in relative isolation. More and more, Japanese in big cities don't know their neighbors.

The cases are also a reminder that the proportion of elderly people in Japan is increasing, a demographic shift that is forcing the government to marshal its resources in order to care for an aging population. Some observers have noted that Japanese of a certain generation are sometimes unwilling to accept public assistance, feeling that they should provide for themselves.

In both of the recent cases, say municipal welfare officials, the people involved would have received help from authorities if they had asked for it. "The problem is the isolation in the city," says Hideo Ibe, president of the government-funded Research Institute for Policies on Aging. "The neighborhood people should have paid more attention."

Many people have drawn parallels to the deprivations of World War II, when starvation was much more of a problem. But the Rev. Toshiya Sasaki, who works with the city's homeless on behalf of the United Church of Christ, cautions that extreme hunger and poverty are more common here than many people think.

Indeed, the number of people dying on the streets of greater Tokyo is rising fast. In 1993, 480 people without a home address died in such circumstances, more than double the figure for 1989, according to the metropolitan coroner's office.

Kiyoko and Tatsuo Kase fall into this category. The couple were found dead in their car April 18, apparently from malnutrition.

"It's a tragic story in this affluent society," says a plant worker in an industrial part of Tokyo called Shinkiba, where the couple lived for four years in their 1950s-era sedan. They papered over the windows to gain some privacy, avoided contact with passersby, and kept clean in a nearby public bathroom, says the plant worker, who asked that he not be further identified.

Welfare officials in the ward that includes Shinkiba say the couple politely insisted that everything was fine the last time a social worker met them, in 1994. "We did what we could do," says Masami Suda, an administrator in the ward welfare office. He says the system is adequate, adding: "We can't force [people] to apply for welfare programs."

"But even if this is a special case," says welfare official Yasuo Amada, a colleague of Mr. Suda, "we don't want to say, 'It couldn't be helped.' This case has raised questions - the fact is that people have starved to death."

Mr. Amada says that he and his colleagues will have to do more to reach people who don't ask for assistance and to inform the public about available programs. The officials say the couple would likely have been able to claim monthly benefits of some $1,600.

Officials in the welfare office in the Seras' neighborhood say they were unaware of the desperate conditions that the mother and son were living in. Neighbors who had closer contact with Hiroko Sera than Watanabe, the apprentice cook had, say she refused offers of food, according to media reports. They were reportedly surprised to learn that the woman's son lived with her in the small, two-room flat.

Sera received a state pension of 100,000 yen ($952) each month, and spent 85,000 yen on rent, according to Tokyo police. That left 15,000 yen ($142) a month for other expenses, including food.

Police entered the Sera apartment on April 27 after a neighbor asked an officer to investigate. Inside they found a diary kept by the mother, who was a widow responsible for the care of her middle-aged, bedridden son.

According to excerpts from the diary that have appeared in the Asahi newspaper, she ruled out seeking help from the authorities. "I'm afraid we'd be forced to live in public facilities with other people," she wrote on March 8. "Let us die living the independent life we have now."

The final entry, dated March 11, reads in part: "We finally ran out of food this morning. There will be nothing to put into our mouths from tomorrow. I wonder if we will be able to keep on only drinking tea every day."

In general, Japanese seem to have interpreted these tragedies as signs of the times. "In this age of materialism, people's spirit of helping each other is declining," wrote analyst Masato Tanaka in the Yomiuri newspaper.

Mr. Sasaki, who helps feed the homeless, says the achievement of postwar prosperity has made Japanese less likely to realize that others may not be as well off. At the same time, he says, recent economic stagnation has increased income disparities, and he worries that more Japanese may find themselves in extreme poverty.

"In the past Tokyo was a place where people helped each other, that was the norm. Nowadays people are more individualized," says Mieko Shioda, an activist who runs a grass-roots political group. "We should go back" to a society more concerned with relations between people, she adds.

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