Workers at a special cleaning service restore the home of a man who died alone to its original condition. (Taku Hosokawa)

OSAKA--On a steamy, rainy day in July, special cleaners donning protective gear burned an offering of incense at the entrance to an apartment room, as the pungent smell of rot wafted out from inside.

"I can't get used to this smell, no matter how many scenes we experience," said Noriyuki Kamesawa, president of Kansai Clean Service, which is based in the city's Higashinari Ward.

The cleaners must wear their protective suits no matter how hot and sweaty they get to shield themselves from not just the coronavirus, but all kinds of other infectious diseases due to the grim scenes they encounter.

The company takes requests from bereaved family members and landlords to sort through the personal effects of people who died in their homes and restore the items to their original condition.

They used ozone-spraying devices to deodorize the room. The floor near the bathroom was stained darkly with what appeared to be bodily fluids from the remains of a dead body.

This scene is becoming increasingly common here.

Deprived of social contact amid the pandemic, more and more people are dying alone at home. Referred to as "kodokushi," their bodies are going undiscovered for longer periods during the health crisis, with some only being found after more than six months.

Kamesawa said his company has seen a five-fold increase in monthly inquiries for its services since the pandemic started.

"It is clear that their social interactions have been cut off," said Kamesawa.

The body of the 67-year-old man who had lived alone in the apartment was found about two weeks prior.

It was badly decomposed due to the hot and humid conditions during the rainy season, and his cause of death was unknown. His death appeared to have gone unnoticed for about a month.

"I think he had lost the will to live," said the deceased's son, 36, who observed the cleaning process.

According to him, the man lost his wife to lung cancer 20 years ago and had been living alone after his son left two years ago.

Although he wasn't a gregarious person, he was fond of drinking and sometimes visited snack bars.

Newspapers and magazines were scattered about the room, and the refrigerator was covered with stickers from beer cans for prize drawing campaigns.

But there were almost no traces of him going out during the pandemic.

It had been nine months since the son last saw his father.

"I wish I had gone to see him before he ended up like this," he said.

According to official figures from the Osaka Prefectural Medical Examiner's Office, which defines kodokushi as a person who dies alone in their home and remains undiscovered for at least four days, there were 1,314 cases in Osaka in 2020--the highest number since the office began keeping records in 2017.

"Under the current circumstances, where it is difficult to interact with neighbors and get together with friends for hobbies due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is crucial to prevent isolation by keeping in touch with family members and acquaintances more often," said a clinical laboratory technician who works at the office.

The problem is not only worsening here. In February, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Japan's first "minister of loneliness," tapped with combatting the issue of worsening isolation across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The government plans to release new national statistics describing the current situation by the end of March 2022. But in the meantime, the crisis continues to simmer quietly.

During the summer months, there are more cases where authorities are unable to determine the cause of death because dead bodies decompose rapidly in the heat and humidity.

In May, the body of a 64-year-old man was found in an apartment complex in Nara Prefecture. Police officers made the discovery when they opened the door to respond to a complaint from neighbors about the man's two small dogs barking loudly.

It took time for the police to identify his face because he is believed to have died about three weeks before being discovered.

Two weeks after the body was found, his second-eldest daughter, 32, observed the cleaning process.

She said she had kept in contact with her father at least once a month using the Line messaging app.

"I never thought I'd see someone close to me die a solitary death. I thought I would only see such cases on TV," she said. "If I had been in contact with him a little more, I could have found him earlier."