When an elderly couple in Saitama met a neighbor for the first time in mid-December, they found themselves hearing a cry for help.
“My husband is sick, and we are in trouble,” the neighbor, a woman in her 60s, said. “We don't have money. Would you lend us some?”
The couple, in their 70s, declined the request and advised the woman to consult with the owner of her apartment building or a social worker.
“That’s OK,” the neighbor said before smiling and leaving, according to the couple.
The woman and her family have not been seen or heard from since around that time.
Police on Feb. 20 discovered the bodies of three people believed to be the woman, her husband, also in his 60s, and their son in his 30s in the family’s apartment in Saitama’s Kita Ward. They are believed to have died of starvation or illness or committed suicide.
The bodies have not been positively identified, and autopsies were scheduled for Feb. 22.
A few 1-yen coins were found in the apartment, as well as the carcass of a pet cat. Plastic bottles containing water were located near the three thin bodies, suggesting they lived on water in their last days.
They had no food, and the electricity and gas were cut off.
Takehiro Yoshida, a lawyer familiar with issues related to poverty and welfare, said public authorities must do more to locate and support people in need.
“Some people have a resistance to going on welfare and are reluctant to consult with authorities. Others are isolated in their communities,” Yoshida said. “Unpaid utility bills are among a limited number of signs (of their difficulties). A framework for sharing such information is necessary, such as utilities reporting on delinquents to authorities.”
The couple and their son in Saitama were not friendly with their neighbors.
“I did not hear anyone talking. It did not appear that anyone was living there,” a person who lives in the same apartment building said of the family's apartment in recent weeks.
The owner of the apartment said the family fell behind in rent payments about two years ago, when the husband became unable to work due to pain in his lower back.
According to the city government, the family was not registered as residents of Saitama.
While the electricity and gas were cut off, the city’s waterworks department kept the water running, taking the family’s conditions into consideration.
The family had failed to pay water bills since last summer. When an employee of the waterworks department visited the family on Nov. 17, a woman who appeared to be the wife said her husband had been hospitalized.
The employee told the woman to talk with the ward’s welfare department if her family was in difficulties. Records since 2003 show that the family had not received any welfare payments.
A number of cases of other unnoticed deaths have been reported this year.
In Sapporo, two sisters, 42 and 40, were found dead in an apartment in January. The younger sister was mentally impaired.
In Kushiro, also in Hokkaido, the bodies of an 84-year-old man with dementia and his 72-year-old wife were discovered the same month.
In early February, the Hokkaido government conducted a survey covering all 179 municipalities under its jurisdiction to find out how they support citizens who need assistance, such as elderly, disabled or low-income people.
“We want to identify families in need by using a variety of channels to find information on people who need assistance,” a Hokkaido government official said.
The Hokkaido government will also consider sharing information with electric power and gas suppliers on delinquent subscribers.
Tokyo Gas Co. visits subscribers or contacts owners of their apartments when their gas meters show little changes.
The company’s employees advise people in arrears to apply for welfare but they are not required to notify public authorities about such cases.
“We are reluctant to disclose contract information on our initiative because it includes personal information,” a company official said. “We can cooperate if there are requests from public organizations or legal frameworks.”
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