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The Limits of Dwelling and the Unwitnessed Death

By Jason Danely

Cite As:
Danely, Jason. 2019. “The Limits of Dwelling and the Unwitnessed Death.” Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 2: 213–239.


Demographic and policy changes in Japan during the first decades of the twenty-first century have resulted in significantly more people growing older and dying alone, especially in densely populated urban centers. As the national Long-Term Care Insurance system continues to promote community-based elder care despite weakened family and neighborhood bonds, the home has become an intensified space of care as well as a potential zone of abandonment. This article considers these divergent potentials of home and their implications for thinking about the material, ethical, and aesthetic limits of dwelling as embodied in the specter and spectacle of the lonely death (kodokushi). Such deaths and the empty houses they leave behind index other forms of loss emerging from intertwined histories of the family, welfare, and housing and construction policy. I argue that the connection between local experiences of aging and death and national policies can be found in mediating images and narratives of mourning, which seek to locate and make sense of the inability to dwell. Approaching unwitnessed deaths as specters at the limits of dwelling allows us to move beyond the shock of lonely death and draws our attention instead to the links between caring, mourning, and the home in an aged society.




dwelling; community care; social isolation; old age; lonely death; Japan; 住まい; 地域ケア; 孤独; 老年期; 孤独死、; 日本