“Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?” Psalm 89:4
Mr. Watanabe* was only 39 years old when he suddenly passed away, shocking everyone who knew him. In contrast, Mr. Suzuki’s* death at age 64 was not particularly unusual, but it shocked people for different reasons. Further details revealed that Mr. Watanabe probably died from karōshi (“death from overwork”) and the circumstances associated with Mr. Suzuki’s death classified it as a “solitary death,” or kodokushi. The common Japanese character in both of these terms for death is shi (死). It is often used in association with other characters to indicate the particular nature of a person’s demise, such as death from starvation, disease, suicide or battle.
The term karōshi, was coined in 1978 to describe the increasingly reported phenomenon of relatively young adults dying prematurely and the cause of their deaths being primarily linked to extreme overwork. Most of these individuals labored for long hours over an extended period of time with no days off until they eventually collapsed due to a combination of stress, exhaustion and poor dietary habits. Heart attacks and strokes were the most common results and many resorted to taking their own lives in desperation. Some surviving relatives began to file lawsuits against companies that were guilty of forcing impossible working conditions upon their employees. The disturbing trend of such deaths eventually came to the attention of public authorities and prompted government intervention. Karōshi hotlines were set up to offer help, laws were enacted to limit overtime and companies were educated to implement frequent health checks and better working conditions for employees. Workers were also encouraged to take their allotted days off and personal vacation time which many had previously foregone due to work pressures.
Kodokushi, or “lonely death,” points to a different sociological problem where people become isolated from communities for various reasons and die alone in their residence with their bodies remaining undiscovered for long periods of time. This social anomaly was identified in the 1980s and came to the nation’s attention following the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, when thousands of elderly Japanese were relocated to isolated residences and many mysteriously started to die alone with their deaths going unreported. Further research reveals that this alarming trend is almost unique to men who are over fifty, unemployed, live isolated lives and have minimal contact with family. In some cases, the bodies of such individuals remain undiscovered for years until their bank accounts eventually become depleted, triggering a cessation of automatic payments for their rent and utilities. Toru Koremura, who operates a specialized cleaning company that deals with the unpleasant after effects from such deaths ironically commented, “Dead people have taught me how to live better.” Read the article “The Lonely End” by Matthew Bremner for a sobering account of this phenomenon.
Regardless of the circumstances of one’s death or the cause of death, there is one common denominator of truth that is universally avoided: we will all eventually die. Some deaths may be unusually tragic, others heroic and some barely noticed, but no one is exempt. Everyone dies, but paradoxically, we generally live our lives pretending otherwise, as the alternative is too frightening. This approach explains why death is described as our ultimate enemy in I Corinthians 15:26, but the passage goes on to announce the glorious news that the power of death is eternally broken by the sacrificial death of God’s own Son (vv. 55-57). Koremura is correct in observing that we can learn much from death, but we need not fear it. I have stood before many graves and read the powerful words “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The answer? It has been defeated by the Cross.
*Both are fictional characters