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SHUKATSU

Part of aging process: Preparing for the end

More seniors actively organizing own funerals, inheritance details

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

When young people say “shukatsu,” they mean job-hunting. But nowadays, older people are grimly playing on the word by changing the kanji for “shu” to convey a different kind of activity: preparing for “the end.”

How are people preparing for death? Why has the elderly version of the term become such a buzzword in recent years?

Following are questions and answers about the elderly and how they are preparing for the final phase of life:

Is preparing for death becoming more common?

This appears to be the case.

The population is rapidly aging and thus more and more elderly are girding for the end.

Family sizes have shrunk and it is becoming less common for offspring to remain in the same household as their parents. This has caused parents to rely less on their offspring, including when making preparations for when they die.

According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, created by the health ministry, people 75 and older who live alone will number 4.29 million in 2030, more than double the 2005 figure.

More and more parents are finding themselves living separately from their offspring since the 1990s and want to prepare for the inevitable while they still can, said Midori Kotani, senior research director at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

The media started using this alternative form of shukatsu more frequently a few years ago. The first book on the topic, “Shukatsu Manual 2010,” was published the same year by Shukan Asahi Mook.

What exactly does such preparation entail?

Funerals and final resting places are always the main concerns of the elderly. But there are also other details, including what to do with their possessions, that must be sorted out.

Besides a formal document like a last will and testament, there are also “ending notes” pertaining to nonlegal matters.

Seniors also routinely contact funeral companies to arrange final services and also write down “ending notes,” including after-death messages and instructions to relatives and friends.

Special notebooks are also available, providing seniors a way to specify and organize the type of funeral they want, list relatives and friends, and make a record of their financial assets and what to do with them.

One firm catering to this need is office supply maker Kokuyo Co., which started selling 64-page “ending notebooks” in September 2010. It had sold over 250,000 copies by the end of June.

“A number of customers told us they wanted a notebook for casually jotting down information that was less formal than a will,” Kokuyo spokesman Hideyuki Ebisawa said.

At what age do people generally start preparing for the end?

Kokuyo said people 60 and older account for half of those buying the notebooks.

“But people in their 50s and younger who have not yet retired from their jobs account for the other half, which means younger generations are also interested in making such preparations,” said Ebisawa.

What kinds of funeral services are popular?

The elderly have many more options than in the past because more companies are catering to diversified funeral preferences.

Many elderly are showing a preference for small, inexpensive funeral services. A traditional ceremony usually costs more than ¥1 million, and that is on top of the wide range of offerings at Buddhist temples.

The Aeon group, which runs a supermarket chain, offers a funeral package costing only ¥498,000 that can accommodate 15 to 50 participants — much smaller in scale than formal, traditional rites.

From April 13 to 15, it held a funeral service show at the Tokyo International Forum in Chiyoda Ward, attracting 56,000 people.

“Many customers want to know how much all of the services will cost, and not be surprised by add-ons,” said Fumitaka Hirohara of Aeon’s funeral services unit.

Aeon’s clear pricing strategy has attracted many customers because the funeral industry is notorious for its high prices and ambiguous pricing structure.

Aeon said other popular services include introductions to Buddhist monks, rental of mourning attire, and counseling on inheritance taxes.

Have most elderly Japanese started final preparations?

No. According to a January survey by the trade ministry, 63.5 percent of the 4,181 respondents had heard of “ending notes” but just 2.0 percent said they had used them.

Legally binding documents, such as wills, are not very popular, either. The same survey found that about 80 percent of respondents who have inherited assets said no wills were left for them.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp