The Unwitnessed Death: An Interview with Jason Danely

Photo by Aurélien bellanger.

This post builds on the research article “The Limits of Dwelling and the Unwitnessed Death,” which was published in the May 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Vaia Sigounas: The opening scene where you have just tucked your children into bed for the night serves as a jarring juxtaposition to the rest of the paper which is filled with images of elderly people dying alone and neglected. How are social imperatives and moral obligations toward care of vulnerable kin lost when an elderly person dies alone in Japan?

Jason Danely: An elderly person who dies alone is a potent image in Japan because it indexes the breakdown of a social order, the rules and values that were supposed to undergird generational and spiritual continuity. The house has collapsed. Or it has become a coffin. It is certainly not the pillar of the family that it was believed to be. When some of those material anchors of obligation like the home or inheritance are no longer primary, and when participation in economic life takes one away from community rather than more deeply into it, it isn’t surprising to see the sense of obligation to care diminish. Care is hard work!

VS: Your paper suggests that an unwitnessed death in Japan is inherently malevolent—as if the lack of witnesses renders it suspicious. What attributes of kodokushi open it up to what you call “dwelling in uncertainty”?

JD: To face something that only points to an unwitnessed event is to face uncertainty. To linger in it at least, like a fog, without knowing how to escape. Jacques Derrida (1994) writes at length about the ways ghosts compel us to find the place where they reside, to find the grave. So the sort of ghostly presence of kodokushi does the same thing. How does one dwell with ghosts? What is that “hauntological” demand that they make on me? Of course the unwitnessed death is also seen as malevolent, and everyone is potentially a suspect. That sums up the feeling of community members. They are trying to construct a kind of alibi, to enact a performance of care, monitoring solo-dwelling older people, cleaning up the houses of the kodokushi, taking care of the ceremonial arrangements, and so on. They find ways to dwell, but the house is still haunted.

VS: You ask, “What is the responsibility of the community to maintain connection and care? To keep [older people] from fading into specters, or to mourn their absence?” (217). Then you go on to write about how mourning kodokushi “focuses instead on homes” (217). Why do you think this is the case? Is it a way to mourn the dead or a practical need to deal with the materiality of death? On which side of the veil do the ghosts dwell?

JD: I was really inspired several years ago by Jean M. Langford’s (2009) article in Cultural Anthropology on the materiality of death. I remember a line from one of her informants that a person who dies without having the ceremonies performed will be like a bird wandering around without a place to perch. Homes are places to perch; where one is integrated into the economic circulation of daily life with others. Homes locate personhood among objects and architectures. In most of Kyoto, the lack of an address system for each house means that the current occupant’s name must be written on a plaque on the outside. The family domestic altar is in the house. So there is a sense that the condition of the house is going to reveal the person who dwells in it, the way houses tell stories when we look at them closely. And then there is the body of the person, which in the case of kodokushi is often transformed and repulsive. It compels you to look away. Yet it is this looking away from the older person’s body that precipitated the kodokushi in the first place, the looking away that made them spectral and their lives unwitnessed. So the houses are monitored for signs that the person might be sick or dead and houses become the means through which order can be restored to the person once their body has been removed. When you see Japanese horror films they are often about haunted houses, but I think that invites more questions about how these places have changed in ways that no longer support caring relationships.

VS: Where homes are "spaces of potential for both care and abandonment" (216), what roles do home shrines play in mourning the dead in empty homes?

JD: I’ve been interested in home shrines for the family dead since my first visit to Japan back in 1994. I would sit with my host grandmother in this dim, austere room with a beautiful black lacquered shrine with gold detailing. During the summer holiday of Obon, I was told that the spirits of the family dead return to the home, where the window is left open and some water and offerings laid out the way kids in the United States leave cookies out for Santa Claus. Then one would send them off again after a week. So the vessels of remembrance like shrines or graves are only places the spirit enters at times, and at other times, leaves—they are also spaces of care and abandonment. But because of their constancy, because we can care for these places, they retain that connection to the spirit. Just like the neglected house often precedes a kodokushi, the abandoned grave precedes the muen or “disconnected” disentangled spirit (that bird without a perch).

VS: What does it mean for the school children to greet but not face an older couple in terms of “phatic mereness” (figure 3)?

JD: I thought this was such a bizarre, flattened image of social relations. Proximity without engagement. Without facing the other in a kind of Levinasian sense perhaps. There is a performance of greetings, aisatsu, in Japan, which is drilled into schoolchildren, and yet one’s obligation to the other stops there. Of course greetings can be much more than mere greetings (and often are), but as a civic ideology of community building, they are reduced to their most basic formula—just with the voice, or not even the voice, a bow, a look at least. The poster removes even the look—“just a word, just a breath, just a proof that you are alive and standing by”—these are words from Kafka that Nozawa quotes as a kind of echo of the quality of phatic mereness. The echo haunts his article, like the old man with the rumpled sock haunts mine. I think, however, that I am a little less hopeful than Nozawa that indifference could be reconfigured “as a promise of co-presence with others.” On the other hand, I have to be careful of my own projections onto the figure of kodokushi. If we look at survey data, at least, most older people living alone are not afraid of kodokushi (see Tiefenbach and Kohlbacher 2017). But of course it is difficult to know how up front people would be about such a thing or if they would feel the same way once it became much closer to reality. But this again is the un-witness-ability and uncertainty of kodokushi!

VS: Questions of value are threaded through this article, particularly in the relationship between kodokushi and akiya (empty homes). Is there something particularly Japanese about the haunted nature of these lonely deaths / empty houses? I’m thinking specifically about Liisa H. Malkki’s (2015) The Need to Help, where she writes about lonely older adults who fear dying alone and abandoned in Finland.

JD: I think there are some strong resonances with the lonely older adults in Finland that Malkki (2015) discusses in her wonderful book, and with Lauren Berlant’s (2011) notion of “crisis ordinariness” she picks up on. Aging, finitude, and solitude have certain existential qualities that one is likely to find anywhere, and that in itself is a reason we ought to be paying attention to them and to the particular kind of ethical work that attends to them. But I did not get the sense that the lonely death, pitiable as it was, had the same spectral quality that I found in Japan in three respects: first, the close association between the attachment of spirits to homes was not apparent; second, the association between home as a locus of cultural/national spirit was not as apparent; the context of the missing family did not cause the same kind of unease. The home in Japan collapses all of these and places it in a semiotic framework of ethical norms. So the good home is a place of family care aligned with cultural values and national aspirations; it is a place of dwelling. The bad home has become a trap, where one is disconnected from the moral and spiritual anchors of family, culture, and nation, and, where care ceases to flow in and out, excess pools up. I think one of the reasons kodokushi and the metonymic image of the akiya is still haunting in Japan is that it points out the disjuncture between the continued promotion of the “good home” as an ideal site of care and the economic system that has led to a devaluing of that home, the older occupant, and informal community ties. I think this is what creates this feeling of unhomeliness, like abandoned graves or the specter of obasuteyama, a tale of a son abandoning his mother on the mountains (a theme in my 2014 book [Danely 2014]), that is very Japanese.

VS: Bureaucracy and order are lost when people and homes become dislocated from communal life. At the same time, kodokushi is also a consequence of trying to keep older adults in the community. How can these opposing forces be reconciled in Japan’s aging society? What new mourning rituals (for home and human) have emerged and/or what new ones must arise?

JD: One thing I try to express in the article is that the efforts to watch over solo-dwelling older people take tremendous effort and yield little in the way of actual prevention, at least where I was. But they were concerned with the fallout after a death, the gossip and police investigations. I found it interesting how health and social care professionals work around this by using bureaucratic procedures to their advantage, for example by filling in death certificates in such a way that would put family present at the moment of death when they weren’t. This was a way of using bureaucracy to put personal long-standing relationships between doctors and family before the confinement of the welfare system. I think this is a part of mourning in the sense that it emplaces and emplots the death in a socially affirming way.

The effort to keep older people in their homes and “independent” is really a way to keep the state burden of costs of the aging population low. Sure, most people don’t want to live in institutions either, so this is at first appealing to everyone, but there are gaps in community-based support that remain difficult to bridge. Jieun Kim’s (2016) writing on “necrosociality” of homeless men in Japan is compelling and shows what an alternative to family-based and home-based mourning looks like. Mourning rituals that don’t rely on family involvement have been around for a while, sometimes with a particular political message. I find the interest in people who clean up akiya after kodokushi very telling. They've become a new kind of mortuary specialist, or exorcist, even as they represent a class of precarious workers themselves. They perform small rituals for the dead in the house and do the work of purification, etc. It is very material, yet at the same time, dealing with the traces of the dead. A very arresting exhibit at a funerary business convention in Tokyo featured some miniature recreations of the rooms where people died alone that were created by one of these workers. They were tiny, impeccable, and terrifying, but they did remind me of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966, 24) writing about myth in The Savage Mind, and the “intrinsic value of the small-scale model” to bring the incomprehensible dimensions to a scale that is intelligible. I think this too is a function of mourning and the spectacle that somehow enters the space left by merely watching over.

VS: You describe kodokushi as “an everyday crisis, a spectacle that few seemed moved by, but that nonetheless demanded our attention" (214). With the banality of death, why is the unattended death—as opposed to the death surrounded by family—still a spectacle?

JD: More and more people are dying alone, so it is ordinary and yet something most people wouldn’t want for themselves or those they care for. Again, this is sort of like the sense of arrest in Berlant’s (2011) crisis ordinariness, where a clear mode of action isn’t forthcoming. This seems to be a perpetual character of politics around health and social care in Japan (and elsewhere), where one might raise support for taking urgent action but end up very muddled on details. But while people don’t know what to do, there is a desire to see, to locate, to place or story the event to a public frame. This is part of the hauntological demand of the unwitnessed death.


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Danely, Jason. 2014. Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge.

Kim, Jieun. 2016. "Necrosociality: Isolated Death and Unclaimed Cremains in Japan." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22, no. 4: 843–63.

Langford, Jean M. 2009. "Gifts Intercepted: Biopolitics and Spirit Debt." Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 4: 681–711.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Malkki, Liisa H. 2015. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Tiefenbach, Tim, and Florian Kohlbacher. 2017. "Fear of Solitary Death in Japan’s Aging Society." In Happiness and the Good Life in Japan, edited by Wolfram Manzenreiter and Barbara Holthus, 238–55. London: Routledge.