ICHIHARA, Chiba Pref. — It was the start of a real-life horror story for the people of Ichihara’s Otsubo district when a smokestack suddenly appeared in a neighbor’s yard in August last year.
Standing on the grounds of what was once a large, stately home, they soon learned, was the crematorium of their new, unexpected neighbor — a final resting place for pets. Not only was an incinerator built, but the home was refurbished to serve as both office and mausoleum.
When operations began, the incinerator began spewing a foul-smelling smoke. Directly hit were nearby grocers, restaurants and food manufacturers, some of which saw sales plummet by as much as 20 percent, as customers began avoiding “food contaminated with the ashes of cats and dogs.”
Incensed locals filed complaints with city authorities after the operator of the crematorium and mausoleum refused to suspend operations; they were told nothing could be done.
Despite the steady growth of the pet funeral business over the past decade, there are few regulations regarding facilities providing related services. Anecdotes about businesses taking advantage of the lack of legal guidelines are not hard to come by.
According to business consultant Makio Tokumura, there are about 800 businesses providing pet funeral services nationwide, with 150 built last year alone. Many are located in urban areas — Tokyo has 96 and Chiba 66.
Given the industry’s growth, Tokumura said, it is inconceivable that there has been almost no regulatory framework for the construction and operation of such businesses.
The town of Kurose, Hiroshima Prefecture, is experienced with the problems that can arise. It enacted an ordinance regulating facilities that deal with dead pets in June 1990, enabling the mayor to refuse permission for the construction of a crematorium if located within 100 meters of any residence.
Town officials said the ordinance was drafted after construction of such a facility in the town’s residential district caused a huge outcry among locals.
It, however, is an exception, and the general lack of rules is causing problems elsewhere — not only for such facilities’ neighbors but for business operators themselves.
Katsutoshi Fukuhara, who has run his pet funeral home in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward for 15 years, said that while he would not like authorities to meddle in his business, restrictions of some sort are necessary.
“Actually, the market has been overcrowded with new entries, forcing many operators to cut corners to survive,” he said. “Under such circumstances, some of them resort to desperate tactics.”
Some business owners, he said, don’t care about the objections of the local community so long as they can operate with legal impunity. Therefore, “troubles over location are very likely to be repeated,” he said.
Such was the case with the Otsubo pet crematorium, said locals, who claimed the operator of the facility dared to taunt community representatives during negotiations to settle the dispute.
An Ichihara City official said there was nothing authorities could do at the time.
“There is a regulation on incinerators, but those with an incineration capacity under 50 kg per hour need not be registered with authorities,” he said. The Otsubo pet incinerator burned 45 kg per hour.
“Two other crematoriums in the city are located in remote areas, and they have never been a problem for the local community,” said municipal assemblyman Takeshi Oriyama. “However, this particular one (in Otsubo) was built in the middle of a commercial area, and it must have been a source of great anguish for store owners there.”
He said one food manufacturer had to invest 7 million yen to upgrade the air system at its plant after consumers started questioning its level of hygiene. Meanwhile, the convenience store across the narrow street from the mausoleum noticed fewer customers at night; it said customers were spooked by the brightly-lit Buddhist statues that loomed large on the premises.
The concerns of local residents and shopkeepers became so great that before the end of the year a group of local business owners started a petition drive calling for an ordinance to regulate pet crematoriums.
They did not stop even after the operator of the Otsubo facility was forced to leave after being evicted from the land by the court in April. He had been unlawfully occupying the land after its real owner failed to repay a debt for which the land was collateral.
Locals said they would continue their campaign as long as there was a possibility such crematoriums could again be built in their neighborhood.
“It could happen if a neighbor decides to open a facility to cremate and bury pets,” one Otsubo resident said. “We fully understand the feelings of pet lovers, but pet crematoriums and mausoleums, like those for humans, should be built at proper locations.”
“You can listen to the story calmly when it’s someone else’s problem, but how would you feel if a crematorium was suddenly built next door?” said another.
Their worries were eased and efforts rewarded earlier this month when the Ichihara Municipal Assembly unanimously passed a city ordinance mandating that pet crematoriums be located at least 50 meters away from any residence.
Ichihara officials said the ordinance is the first of its kind in Japan to be enacted at the city level, and observers said they expect other municipal governments will follow suit given the rise in the popularity of funeral services for pets.
The officials said they have already received several inquiries from other municipal governments experiencing similar community friction between residents and pet crematorium operators.
Meanwhile, pet funeral house owner Fukuhara said it is vital that such operators make efforts to secure the understanding of the local community.
He said he himself spent millions of yen to regularly upgrade his incinerators as new condominiums were built around his establishment.
One of the two incinerators at his funeral home cost about 15 million yen. It is three-chambered, and it removes the stench and smoke before the air comes out of the chimney.
“You have to spend at least 10 million yen in order to prevent the smoke and the smell, not to mention dioxin emissions,” he said.
He made sure to explain the nature of his business to the locals and even invited prospective new neighbors to tour the facility to see how it worked.
“Backward-looking business practices, such as trying to operate in residential areas without (straightforward dialogue) with the surrounding community, can never gain the understanding of locals.”
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