TOKYO (AFP) - The stench of flesh rotting on a sultry day fills the air as cleaner Hidemitsu Ohshima steps into a tiny Tokyo apartment where a dead man lay decomposing for three weeks.
The man, believed to be in his 50s, died alone in a city he shared with tens of millions of other people but no one noticed, making him the latest victim of "Kodokushi" or "dying alone" - a growing trend in ageing Japan.
Decked out in a white protective suit complete with rubber gloves, Ohshima lifts up a futon mattress soaked with the dead man's bodily fluids, only to uncover a writhing mass of maggots and black bugs.
"Ugh, this is serious," he says. "You wear protective suits to defend yourself from bugs that may or may not be carrying diseases."
Kodokushi is a growing problem in Japan, where 27.7 per cent of the population is aged over 65 and many people are giving up trying to find partners in middle age, opting instead for a solitary existence.
Experts say a combination of uniquely Japanese cultural, social and demographic factors have compounded the problem.
There are no official figures for the number of people dying alone who stay unnoticed for days and weeks but most experts estimate it at 30,000 per year.
Yoshinori Ishimi, who runs the Anshin Net service that cleans up afterwards, believes the true figure is "twice or three times that."
Modern Japan has experienced sweeping cultural and economic changes in recent decades but demographers say the country's social safety net has failed to keep pace - with the burden still on the family to look after the elderly.
"In Japan, family has long served as the strong foundation of social support of all kinds," said Katsuhiko Fujimori, a well-known expert on welfare issues.
"But now things are changing with the rise of single people and the size of the family becoming smaller," added Fujimori, chief research associate at Mizuho Information and Research Institute.
In the past three decades, Japan has seen the share of single-occupant households more than double to 14.5 per cent of the total population, the rise driven mainly by men in their 50s and women in their 80s and older.
Marriage rates are also dropping, with experts saying many men fear their job is too precarious to settle down and start a family and more women entering the workforce and no longer needing a husband to provide for them.
One in four 50-year-old Japanese men has never been married. By 2030, the figure is estimated to rise to one in three.
The problem is exacerbated by a deep-rooted Japanese cultural tendency to turn to family rather than neighbours in times of trouble.
In a bid to be polite, elderly Japanese people fear to disturb their neighbours even to ask for help in the most trifling matters, resulting in a lack of interaction and isolation, expert Fujimori said.
Some 15 per cent of elderly Japanese people living alone report having only one conversation a week, compared to 5 per cent of their peers in Sweden, 6 per cent in the US and 8 per cent in Germany, according to a Japanese government study.
And families increasingly live away or do not have the resources to help elderly relatives in tough economic times.
Fujimori advocates raising taxes to provide better social care for the elderly and financial assistance for childcare, freeing up working-age adults to return to the workforce.
"If family can no longer play the roles it has been playing, society must build a framework that responds to that need," said Fujimori.
"If nothing is done, we'll see more solitary deaths," he added.
No pictures, no letters
Aside from the anguish for relatives when they realise their loved-one has lain undiscovered for days, there is a practical element as these cases tend to cause apartment prices to plunge.
Cleaning firm boss Ishimi says Japan needs to educate young people about the issue and the lack of dignity suffered by the isolated elderly.
"How does one wish to die? Society as a whole must think about this," he said.
Meanwhile, back at the Tokyo apartment, Ohshima and his team keep the windows closed to prevent the noxious stench from spreading through the densely populated neighbourhood.
The room is filled with signs of the frugal, clean living of a music and movie lover who kept a vast collection of CDs and DVDs but not much else. No pictures. No letters.
Most items are thrown out but Ohshima and his two colleagues methodically go through the man's belongings for valuables in case his family eventually comes forward and wishes to see whatever he left behind.
"Police are looking for his relatives," said Ohshima.
"But no luck so far."