It hardly seems likely a kit called “Let’s Write Our Will” would be a best-seller, but since its debut last year it has been a hit with elderly people.
Kazuo Nebashi, 73, from Tatsunomachi, Nagano Prefecture, became interested in writing a will three years ago when he was helping a woman in her 80s with inheritance problems.
The woman wanted to leave a legacy to her daughter-in-law after she passed away, but under the inheritance law she could not bequest anything to her without putting together a separate will.
“I tried to help by using a book,” he said, “but legal terms and procedures were so complicated I almost gave up. I was very happy when I came across the NPO, which helped me with this kit.”
Nebashi said it was perfect for anyone, like him, lacking special legal knowledge.
According to the Nagano-based nonprofit organization that came up with the kit, more than 7,300 have been sold nationwide since its launch 11 months ago. The NPO works on behalf of seniors and seeks to protect their assets.
Kinokuniya, whose 40 outlets sell the kit, said it was the No. 16 best-seller at its main store in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, at the end of February.
“The kit sells out as soon as we get it in stock. . . . With the aging population and rising awareness of people’s rights, it seems there is considerable need for something like this,” said a salesman at Kinokuniya’s Shibuya branch in Tokyo.
Takeshi Osawa, who set up the NPO in 2001, said many elderly people want to write a will but are hesitant, thinking the process is too complicated.
“They ask a lot of questions, and seem to worry about the smallest details — like what kind of paper they should write it on. So we decided to make a kit that includes everything, even writing sheets and an envelope,” he said.
The kit, priced at 1,575 yen, is designed in such a way that if one follows the booklet’s simple Japanese and large characters, one can easily complete a will, he said.
Those who opt for this route are urged to keep their wills in a safe place.
The demand for wills has increased along with the rise in the elderly population, as well as the rise in their assets, said Tatsuya Ishikawa, a researcher of NLI Research Institute Co., an affiliate of Nippon Life Insurance Co.
“Out of the 50.4 million households in Japan in 2005, 1.7 million were elderly with assets exceeding 100 million yen. The need (for wills) is understandable,” he said.
Another reason people want to write wills is the lack of the prewar family system, which designated the first-born male offspring as the main heir, according to Osawa of the NPO. Under current laws, when someone dies without a will, half of the person’s estate, if applicable, goes to any surviving spouse and the rest is divided up among the offspring, with the values of properties assessed by tax authorities.
“The family system stipulated the eldest son take over the household. And as the main successor, it was a matter of course that his duties included his parents’ funerals and memorials, leaving little room for dispute,” Osawa said.
But the Allied Occupation abolished the family system in a bid to instill a sense of democracy and equal rights for all family members. This has led to sibling quarrels over inheritances, he said.
“Because there is no longer a clear rule as to who the main successor is, siblings try to push family duties onto each other, or on the contrary, fight over them for power,” Osawa said, noting many seniors the NPO deals with designate in their wills which offspring will handle which family tasks, and leave funds to this end.
The kit isn’t the only option when it comes to wills.
The Yaesu Book Center near JR Tokyo Station, one of the biggest bookshops in Tokyo, sells 101 different books about wills and inheritance, many in the form of how-to manuals. Sales staff said most buyers are in their 60s or older.
Then there’s the bimonthly newspaper Sozoku Shimbun (Inheritance Times), specializing in issues that include endowments and inheritance taxes, that debuted in 2003.
Most readers of the paper, which has a circulation of 11,000, are in their 50s with assets topping 50 million yen, an employee at the paper said.
Midori Kotani, a senior researcher of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute who specializes in death and funeral issues, said that because of the increase in nuclear families, there is also a growing need for seniors to express thoughts and feelings in wills, not just list their assets and who will inherit them.
“In the past, it was normal for three generations of a family to share the same roof, so thoughts were communicated naturally. But now, some elderly feel the need to express in writing their feelings toward family members,” she said.
After a scandal at a Toyama hospital in which it was revealed last month that a surgeon took terminally ill patients off life support, more seniors feel the need to write down how they want to spend the last moments of their lives, Kotani said.
Nebashi of Tatsunomachi said helping the woman with the kit prompted him to write his own will.
It will communicate to his relatives his life experiences and feelings about the importance of family — something he has always treasured, he said.
“I think my personal thoughts are as important as my assets. I want to share them with my family, in my will,” he said.