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‘Lonely’ Starvation Deaths Prompt Soul-Searching in Japan

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(TOKYO) -- Japanese police say the family of three – a couple in their 60s and a son in his 30s -- likely starved to death in their own apartment in Saitama Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo, and it took more than a month to discover the bodies. Their refrigerator was empty, their electricity and gas shut off, their rent had gone unpaid for six months.

Police only arrived at their home this week after rent collectors called, asking them to check on the family. The bodies were badly decomposed. A few one yen coins, some candy, and water bottles were all that remained.

Neighbors oblivious to the plight of the family said they hadn’t seen the three in months, but never checked in on them. One neighbor told reporters that the mother asked her for financial help, saying she was in trouble because of her husband’s illness. The neighbor declined and encouraged the woman to apply for welfare instead, but she never did.

The troubling case has raised questions about the safety net in place for the neediest families in Japan, the world’s third-richest country. It has also prompted soul-searching among those who see community ties thinning, and a society increasingly looking inward.

“This is not something you’d expect in a developed country like Japan, but people are struggling to find jobs,” Norimichi Goishi of the Tokyo Institute for Municipal Research said in an interview with broadcaster NHK. “Local officials can’t always reach those in need. Deaths related to starvation are a lot more common than we think.”

More than 700 people have died of hunger since 2000, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, although experts suspect the actual numbers are higher.

The cases are known as kodokushi or “lonely deaths” in Japan -- and the stories are familiar: Unreported deaths, unpaid rents, no food, no electricity, and few ties to family and friends. Many are too ashamed to ask for help.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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