Govt Needs to Review, Update System in Keeping with Times

Due to Japan’s super-aging society and weakening family relationships, an increasing number of people spend their final days alone and die without anyone willing to claim their bodies. To reduce the burden on local governments, it is necessary to review the relevant system.

Of the people who died between April 2018 and October 2021, no one claimed the bodies of as many as about 106,000 of them, according to an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry survey conducted on all local governments in the country.

Most were elderly people living alone, and even if their identities were confirmed, there were many cases in which family members or other relevant parties could not be reached, or refused to claim the bodies, according to the survey.

Among the entire population age 65 and over, 15% of men and 22% of women — both record highs — were living alone as of 2020. These figures are double the levels 40 years ago. It is inevitable that the number of unclaimed dead will continue to rise.

The problem is that local governments are overburdened with related work. The Cemetery and Burial Law stipulates that if there is no one to arrange for the cremation or burial of a body, the local government concerned undertakes the task.

Money and savings left behind by the deceased are used to cover funeral expenses, but when the amount is not sufficient, the local government is required to cover the cost. The Kobe city government paid more than ¥10 million for such expenses in fiscal 2021.

Even when local governments want to use money a deceased person left behind for funeral expenses, financial institutions sometimes refuse to give it to them, claiming that only heirs can withdraw the money. The central government should issue widespread notifications to allow local governments to withdraw the deceased’s money.

Regarding whatever money is left over after funeral expenses have been deducted, a local government files a motion with a court, and ultimately, the money is to be handed over to the national treasury as a rule. However, in reality, about ¥2.15 billion in total is being held by local governments without having been transferred to state coffers.

This is because transferring the deceased’s money to the national treasury requires confirmation that the person had no heirs, and legal fees and other costs for the procedure often exceed the amount of money left behind by the person.

Some local governments are strongly dissatisfied with the current system, with one official saying: “It only adds to the administrative burden. It’s not in step with the present situation.”

The system was created at a time when no one anticipated that the number of elderly people living alone and the unclaimed dead would increase to this level. Although money left behind by these people is managed by the local governments, it cannot actually be spent, and if the situation is left as is, the amount of such money will only increase.

Wouldn’t a practical measure be to entrust the money left over by these people to the relevant local government, not the state coffers? That way, the money could be allocated to funerals services of people who died without leaving any money behind and searches for the heirs of the dead.

Until such a system is established, the central government should consider providing subsidies to local governments. The central and local governments should deepen discussions on the matter.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 1, 2023)