Cicadas, every Japanese schoolchild knows, lie underground for years before rising to the earth’s surface in summer. They climb up the nearest tree, where they cast off their shells and start their short second lives. During their few days among us, they mate, fly and cry. They cry until their bodies are found on the ground, twitching in their last moments, or on their backs with their legs pointing upward.
Chieko Ito hated the din they made. They had just started shrieking, as they always did in early summer, and the noise would keep getting louder in the weeks to come, invading her third-floor apartment, making any kind of silence impossible. As one species of cicadas quieted down, another’s distinct cry would take over. Then, as the insects peaked in numbers, showers of dead and dying cicadas would rain down on her enormous housing complex, stopping only with the end of summer itself.
“You hear them from morning to evening,” she sighed.
It was the afternoon of her 91st birthday, and unusually hot, part of a heat wave that had community leaders worried. Elderly volunteers had been winding through the labyrinth of footpaths, distributing leaflets on the dangers of heatstroke to the many hundreds of residents like Ito who lived alone in 171 nearly identical white buildings. With no families or visitors to speak of, many older tenants spent weeks or months cocooned in their small apartments, offering little hint of their existence to the world outside their doors. And each year, some of them died without anyone knowing, only to be discovered after their neighbors caught the smell.
The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet from his next-door neighbors.
The huge government apartment complex where Ito has lived for nearly 60 years — one of the biggest in Japan, a monument to the nation’s postwar baby boom and aspirations for a modern, U.S. way of life — suddenly became known for something else entirely: the “lonely deaths” of the world’s most rapidly aging society.
“4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.
本文談的是日本老人的「孤獨死」（lonely deaths），卻從「蟬的一生」說起，是一種比喻，因為女主角伊籐千惠子原本跟家人住在這個社區，但先生、女兒相繼罹癌過世後，她開始和老朋友聯絡並結交新朋友，展開第二段生命，就像蟬一樣。夏季熱浪（heat wave）侵襲，孤獨死容易發生，就如成批的蟬在夏天死去一般。
美式英語的apartment主要指出租的房間或整戶住宅，condominium則是住戶自有的房間或整戶住宅。英式英語則用flat指整戶住宅。1960年代，日本政府在東京等城市外圍蓋起大型住宅社區租給上班族。這些出租住房體現了西方人的生活方式（Western structure of life），可供年輕人組織核心家庭（nuclear family），擺脫多代同堂的住家（multigenerational home）。