Social and human challenges in First World Countries: what is Kodokushi?

Hikikomori; Kodokushi; Karoshi. All of these are words representing different phenomena in the Japanese society. Such phenomena were not simply originated by the Japanese society; the latter two are also only existing in Japan. But what do those word mean?

The first one, Hikikomori, is now a widely known problem, that has spread to other countries as well. The word is used to refer to young people – mainly teenagers – that decide to cut out the outer world and bury themselves under the shelter of the walls of their home or even of their room. Kodokushi is a fairly new social and humanitarian problem: the problem of elderly people that lead themselves to an apathic state and then slowly to death. These people are normally lonely and spend the last years of their life with little, if any, contact with other people. This explains another feature associated with this word: often the bodies of the dead are found months, if not years later and most of the times this happens only because a neighbour complains about the smell or because the flat owner notices a prolonged stop in the payment of the rent. As to Karoshi, the word is linked to a long-lasting phenomenon in the Japanese job market: the death by too much work or too much stress. Japan is not the only country of the world that has to deal with labour force exploitation, but it is the only one among the G8 countries to publish official government statistics regarding the number of people affected and the only one to have a legislation to solve the disputes among companies and employees in such situations.

Societies around the world have developed in very different ways and are based on different values, some of them changing over time, some of them seemingly innate, unchanging. Some of the features – and subsequent problems - of the Japanese society are linked on one hand to deeply Japanese values (their willingness to work as hard as they can, regardless of the physical and mental costs to achieve a goal) and on the other to the late response of governments to pressing social issues – as in the case of the social alienation of teenagers and elderly.

After having spent 5 months here, I felt that it was time to write about the Japan and the Japanese society, because despite saying that every society is unique and has its own positive and negative features, I have never seen a more complex, contradictory and articulated society than the Japanese one; what is also interesting, is that in Europe we only get a small insight of this troubled and yet fascinating society.

Multiple societies in Europe will have to face issues linked with population aging, issues that are already challenging the Japanese society since a decade. Looking at Japan and at its winning strategies and mistakes, will help us understand how to avoid negative humanitarian effects of the aging population, such as the Kodokushi reality. The fact that modern societies tend to be ultra-individualistic exacerbates this phenomenon, that is now contributing to the development of a new sector in the economy in Japan, namely the one for handling all the processes that follow from a Kodokushi death – that is, noticing the family of the death, handling the corpse to provide a funeral, re-establishing order and cleaning the places were death took place and that hosted the body for a prolonged time.

Kodokushi is still an unknown phenomenon in Europe, but it will become one increasingly urgent in the future. The challenge for today’s societies is to balance the aging of the population with the individualism that characterises many aspects of life. Leaving people on their own for years, letting them grow old in complete solitude and without any social structure as a support, will have devastating consequences. When an individual considers its own life worthless enough to give up caring about herself and to stop eating, until death occurs, it means that our societies have reached a point of no-return.

A huge part of our lives is nowadays focused on succeeding and on caring about our individual interests, forgetting about ancestral values such as the value of the community and the common good. Unfortunately, after a given individual stops being productive and gets old, his is completely forgotten. Elderly people are set aside and left alone to die, in the midst of the phrenetic life that goes on for everyone else.

Kodokushi is a new disturbing phenomenon. Seeking a solution to it will require an analysis of the phenomenon not only in economic and social terms, but through a human dimension too. We will need to understand on which values we want to build future societies and whether the values embodied by today’s societies are sustainable in terms of basic human rights.

Robin Hendrix

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