National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Unburdening oneself of life's possessions

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese often cite an old aphorism that goes, “Tatsu tori ato wo nigosazu” (“It is a foolish bird that defiles its own nest”). This can be taken to mean that a departing person should not leave behind a mess.

What kind of mess? Well, it goes without saying that contemporary affluence has enabled people to accumulate material possessions to a degree unthinkable by earlier generations. Many of these articles — items composed of metal, ceramics, glass and wood, and the dwellings that house them — can outlast human protoplasm for many decades without appreciating in commercial value.

To the elderly, a home and its treasured possessions can become a considerable burden on both the owners and their heirs.

According to stats from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, some 8.2 million houses and apartments in Japan are unoccupied — about 13.5 percent of the total, or 1 in 7 dwellings. Many have gone unoccupied for a decade or longer and have become public health nuisances, harboring rats and other vermin.

Some properties, moreover, are destined to remain in limbo due to property title ambiguities. More than a few are located in parts of the nation already suffering from population decline and are simply unmarketable at any price. Their demolition can easily run ¥2 million and up.

Recently, more people seem to be waking up to the undesirable prospect of finding themselves buried under a mountain of possessions and seemingly interminable reams of bureaucratic red tape. To deal with these problems proactively, the word katazukeru, meaning “to put things in order” or “clean up,” has been regularly popping up in the media.

The weekly business magazine Toyo Keizai (Aug. 23) devoted 40 pages to the various economic repercussions involved in jikka no katazuke (putting your parents’ affairs in order). Its survey of 811 people found that 540 of those respondents said they had experienced a major cleanup. While 51.1 percent of the respondents said they were able to wind up their parents’ affairs within three months, another 20.6 percent required six months of effort and for 19.3 percent it took over a year. Outlay ran between ¥500,000 to ¥1 million in 5.9 of the cases and for 6.1 percent exceeded ¥1 million.

Attempts to take sensible proactive measures, however, can easily encounter all kinds of stumbling blocks. The article cited a Mr. Suzuki, who is in his 60s. Last year his 86-year-old mother-in-law, who had been widowed some three decades earlier, moved out of her spacious house in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward and entered a nursing home.

When Suzuki pleaded with her to let him start putting things in order, she was adamantly opposed, telling him, “I won’t let you lay a finger on anything in my house.” She was not even willing to tell him where she kept her bank passbook, important documents such as tax receipts or her hanko (personal seal). It seems an acquaintance convinced the woman that were she to transfer the title of her property to Suzuki, his wife or their two grown daughters while still living, they would abandon her.

“All I can do is pray that I outlive her,” Suzuki shrugs in resignation.

Shukan Gendai (Sept. 20-27) ran a 22-page special on preparations for death. It harped on about the term zero-shi (zero-death), meaning attempting to revert to a condition as close as possible to the way we come into the world, i.e., minus clothing and possessions.

It polled 35 men and women over age 80 on their preferences for a funeral, grave site and plans to engage in seizen shori (putting their affairs in order while still alive).

“As a total realist, from when I was young I felt, ‘You can dump my corpse in the gutter for all I care,’ ” remarks 80-year-old Kyosen Ohashi, a well-known TV entertainer and critic. Such statements, to a people raised in a Confucianist culture that deifies one’s ancestors, are designed to shock. But maybe shock is what people need to start preparing while they’re still of sound mind and body.

“Like the song lyrics that go, ‘Become one with the thousand winds,’ I don’t need a grave,” says music composer Taro Kida, age 83. He quotes the great Buddhist priest Kukai, founder of the Shingon sect, who is said to have observed, “Chanted sutras are not heard by the departed.”

“Funerals and sutra readings exist only for the benefit of the survivors,” Kida explains. “That’s why, on the occasion of my 70th birthday 13 years ago, I held a ‘funeral’ while I was still alive. It was a deeply moving experience.”

The new mind-set has also spurred new opportunities for businesses to perform katazuke as a value-added service. One such firm is Art Corporation, a moving company.

“When we arrange cleanups for elderly customers, we’ve learned to avoid words like ‘discard’ or ‘throw away,’ ” Art Corporation’s Emiko Kobata tells the Yomiuri Shimbun (Aug. 29).

Kobata relates that she’d recently counseled a widow in her 70s whose husband had passed away several years earlier, but was unable to tear herself away from the mementos of their lifetime together.

“Your late husband would be happy to know that things had been put in order,” she cajoled the woman, applying the power of positive thinking. Advice that, as it turned out, worked like a charm.

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