Dioramas of death: cleaner recreates rooms where people died alone

Miyu Kojima creates scenes based on rooms she has cleaned after solitary deaths

It was at a trade show for the funeral industry that Miyu Kojima had what might seem at first like a macabre idea.

Kojima, 27, works for To-Do Company, a cleaning firm that specialises in the apartments of the recently deceased. Many of their jobs involve kodokushi (solitary deaths), where people die alone and are not found for days, a phenomenon that has recently gripped the Japanese imagination.

The company was advertising its services at the trade show by displaying photos of the rooms theyd cleaned. But the photos are gruesome to look at, Kojima said. I felt they lacked respect for the deceased and for their family to be exposed like that.

So she bought some glue, polystyrene board, knives and other craft materials, and got to work.

The results are laid out on a table at the To-Do offices in north Tokyo, a narrow warehouse crowded with two vans and boxes of cleaning supplies, and they are astonishing: miniature models of rooms in which people have recently died.

The bodies are gone but the evidence is preserved in hyper-realistic detail: stained blankets, darkened floors, abandoned cats.

Cats
Cats feature in one of Kojimas intricately rendered scenes. Photograph: Kosuke Okahara/The Guardian

The rooms are composites, not specific scenes, helping to soften the blow so that people take the time to understand rather than instantly look away.

Quite often death is a dark side of our lives, and things are hidden, Kojima said. But I wanted people to know the reality.

She recreates it in meticulous detail. Bookshelves are stocked with volumes of biochemistry, quantum physics and Harry Potter. Photos of ancestors and award certificates hang on the walls.

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These rooms are well lived in, recognisable and human, making it all the more unsettling that death can reach inside sometimes without anyone outside noticing.

For the family of the kodokushi, it would be a huge shock to accept that the body was left undiscovered for so long. How often do people call their aged father or mother who lives alone? In between your calls, he or she could die and you wouldnt know for days, weeks, or even months.

Kojima also makes models of houses where hoarders have let their rubbish mount up, known in Japan as gomiyashiki literally trash mansions.

A
A diorama by Miyu Kojima depicting a hypothetical room where a person died in the bathtub of natural causes. Photograph: Kosuke Okahara/The Guardian

Quite often the gomiyashiki owners are alive and hold respectable jobs, like lawyers or nurses, that tend to have irregular working hours, she explained. A small thing will trigger them to end up piling up the rubbish to this extreme: the loss of a partner or job, divorce, or simply not knowing how to clean. In one case the owner was the victim of a stalker, and became too scared to go out to clear up the trash.

Again, it is all about the details: tiny Krispy Kreme boxes, tiny plastic bottles, tiny cockroaches. Kojima had no craft training and taught herself using YouTube and experimentation: for example, finding a way to reproduce perfect detail on printed objects such as books or food cartons by using a photocopier to reduce the size of the originals.

At the beginning I just used readymade furniture for a dolls house, she said. But gradually I started making my own. In one of the models of a bathroom, she positioned and pasted each tile by hand, and used real grout. The only item I bought was a readmade wash basin. The rest I made with resin.

Yuji Masuda, her boss, encourages her to work on the models while at the office, and some of the other 13 staff have started pitching in. Masuda founded the company 18 years after he found his next-door neighbour dead at her house. When no family or friends showed up to help, he took it upon himself to dispose of her possessions and clean her place.

Details
Details include pizza boxes, fast food cartons and newspapers. Photograph: Kosuke Okahara/The Guardian

Back then, there were hardly any specialised companies like mine, he said. Such things were left to family, but these days many people are too busy to take care of such business.

Masuda says theyve noticed an increase in solitary deaths, which he blames on the long-term ripple effect caused by the bursting of Japans real-estate bubble: most families now have two incomes, and elderly parents are increasingly left alone.

The numbers are certainly rising. In 1980, 4.3% of men and 11.2% of women older than 65 lived alone. By 2015, the figures were 13.3% and 21.1%.

Meanwhile, kodokushi has become a household word. In Tokyo alone, 4,777 people died this way in 2017, according to Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health. More than half were men, and the vast majority were older than 60. Gruesomely, roughly a third died two to three days before the body was found and almost 10% of bodies lay there for more than a month.

Kojima, who joined the company seven years ago, said she was particularly drawn to the problem and wanted to help. Why?

Kojimas
Kojimas models are composites of the rooms she has witnessed rather than individual scenes. Photograph: Kosuke Okahara/The Guardian

Well, it might be something to do with my father. He lost his job and his family because of his excessive drinking and lived alone. I was with my friends after school in a caf when my mobile phone rang. It was from my sister, who told me to rush to the hospital. When I arrived, I found my father unconscious in bed, having suffered a stroke alone. He had been discovered lying on the floor of his house by my mother who had visited him by chance. He never regained consciousness.

Troubled by the thought that had her mother not visited he might have lain dead alone for weeks, she began to empathise with the impact of solitary deaths on families. Her first day on the job was in the intense heat of a Tokyo August. The body had been untouched for months. Of course the smell was intense but not as bad as I had imagined, she said, emphasising that the To-Do staff wear approved industrial air masks.

People often ask her if the experiences make her feel scared or haunted.

I dont get squeamish if I think of the deceased as a member of my own family and not as an unknown person, she said. And why should they haunt me? I am there to clean the room where they lived and died, and in this way I am helping them to depart.

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