Death is big business in Japan

Our reporter attends the Funeral Business Fair in Yokohama to check out the latest innovations in a rapidly changing industry


Like it or not, we will all die one day.

That said, our mortality is not something we tend to dwell on — and as for funerals, well, most people probably think about them as little as humanly possible and attend them only when they must.

A few months ago, however, I spent a day observing the postmortem industry at the Funeral Business Fair 2008 in the Pacifico Yokohama events center.

Initially, it felt weird going along to study death from a business perspective. But as it’s clearly a trade that will never die, I told myself that it was worth taking a look.

If you’ve been to a typical Buddhist-style Japanese funeral, you will know that it involves a wake, a ceremony and then a cremation. More than 99 percent of Japanese are cremated before their remains are enshrined in family graves.

At the Funeral Business Fair, all the 100 participating companies were involved in this process. Exhibiting their latest services and goods, they were eagerly promoting them to visitors, who were mainly from funeral homes.

As I wandered around together with countless undertakers, embalmers and the like, I soon encountered a huge altar with rows of white, pink and yellow flowers arranged around a picture of the deceased. Nearby was a gigantic wooden Buddhist altar resplendent with elegant carvings.

Then there was a company from Nagoya introducing a system that changes pictures of the deceased like a slide show. “Most funeral guests are likely to be staring at the picture of the deceased. We believe that more than one picture of that person will make them happier,” a company spokesman said — adding that they also make DVDs of the dearly departed’s life.

Passing by some booths displaying candles, incense, mortuary tablets and other items used around an altar, I came across a Tokyo company showcasing cardboard coffins. Compared to conventional plywood ones, the firm said theirs used less wood and discharged less carbon dioxide. Just the thing for a cadaver concerned about the environment he or she left behind.

Embalming is not very common in Japan, but a few firms at the fair were introducing some chemicals and techniques in that vein — claiming they preserved bodies the way the living person looked in a way far superior to conventional dry ice made from eco-unfriendly carbon dioxide.

As a further sales pitch, they helpfully pointed out that some bodies may harbor diseases, and their methods would prevent infection from affecting either undertakers, bereaved families or funeral guests.

But diseased or not, the awful truth is that not everybody dies in bed. There are those who depart this mortal coil due to accidents or natural disasters, and whose remains may not be at all pleasant to behold. To deal with such bodies, a firm in Chiba Prefecture developed a huge plastic bag made of special film. This prevents the body from suffering further damage, while also blocking odors and infectious diseases, they say.

“We recently donated this to the earthquake-hit Sichuan Province in China,” said a company representative — who also boasted that the product had won a prize from the National Police Agency.

Meanwhile, commanding center stage, a demonstration was under way showing how to purify a body and change the deceased’s clothes before placing him or her in a coffin.

A male model was immersed in a shallow bath tub and quickly washed all over, taken out and dried. Next, his hair was combed and he was dressed in a white kimono and had a triangular cloth put on his forehead — supposed to help on the journey to “the other world.”

Interestingly, this Tokyo firm was also in the business of elderly care, and it seemed that the techniques they have developed in that field were now being applied to the deceased, or vice versa.

Walking on, I spotted some nice ceramic urns from famed potters including Seto in Aichi Prefecture and Kutani in Ishikawa Prefecture. Then there was a booth with urns made by a South Korean firm trying to break into the Japanese market, whose salesman said what distinguished their product was not just the outer “raden pearl” design, but the inside, which is made of ocher. This ocher, he explained, keeps the inside of urns very dry, whereas ceramic ones tend to hold in moisture.

“Urns are the last resting place of your parents, and so regardless of cultures, I think the feeling of wanting to secure a nice environment for them is the same,” he said, naming some Korean celebrities who have chosen his firm’s urns.

When the man found out that I was not a potential client but a reporter, he said that he was on a 10-day business trip but wanted to go home as soon as possible to meet his newborn baby.

After this friendly chat, I came upon the stall of a Tokyo firm running a business scattering ashes into the sea. No wonder the chap here was dressed like a sea captain, as he told me that his service involved taking the bereaved in one of his company’s boats out into Tokyo Bay, where the ashes — ground into powder — are scattered.

“The powdered ashes look like a mushroom cloud when they’re put in clear water. It’s actually very pretty, you know,” he said. The captain added that his firm also makes a map of where the ashes were scattered for the families to keep.

“Are there many people using your business?” I asked.

“Yes, because there are now more nuclear families, and people don’t wish to buy a grave because there won’t be anyone to look after it when they die,” he said. I learned later that interest in scattering ashes is increasing in Japan.

In contrast, there are also people who want to keep their dearly departed close by. For some such folk, wearing them is tickety-boo, and so there are firms specializing in — though they wouldn’t be so indelicate as to say so — turning granny into a gem in death whatever she was like in life.

Among them was the Tokyo subsidiary of a U.S. firm that makes 4-carat “diamonds” from bones. The color of amber, I have to admit that these terminal treasures were indeed very pretty, but . . ..

Similarly, an Osaka firm specialized in producing pendants containing ashes of the deceased. “To some people, it helps to have their loved ones very close until they can gradually move on,” said the man promoting the charms.

But such closeness is not everyone’s fate.

The next booth that caught my attention was that of a firm whose business is clearing and cleaning the homes of those who depart with no one left behind to mourn.

And then, of course, there were the lawyers. Their sales pitch proclaimed their expertise in helping clients to plan their funerals and divide their assets — then ensuring their wishes are fulfilled at the appropriate time.

Finally, however, having been exposed to so many “dead interesting” aspects of the increasingly competitive funeral industry, I found the fair as a whole was a fascinating reflection of changing values and fashions in society — as well as of advances in technology.

That’s not to mention the astounding financial arithmetic that follows from the more than 1 million people a year who die in Japan. Put simply, according to a 2006 report by the Japan External Trade Organization, a typical funeral costs around ¥1.65 million — meaning that death is a staggering ¥1.68 trillion-a-year business in this country.

With more people tending to spend a little less on final farewells these days, however, the once rather secretive funeral industry — whose charges were notoriously unclear as the bereaved hesitated to inquire — is increasingly being forced to join the market economy as consumers become more astute where money is concerned.

As if an epiphany, it suddenly made sense to me why the subtitle of the business fair was: “Meeting the needs of the diversifying values of the individuals.”