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Where to burn aging Japan’s growing numbers of dead?

by and

Special To The Japan Times

As everyone knows, Japan will soon have the largest cohort of seniors in the country’s history, a demographic that promises to sap social services. But there’s another related problem no one is talking about: These people will go on to die, and in very large numbers.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 1.3 million Japanese died in 2015, the most in a single year since the end of World War II. This number will continue to increase, exceeding 1.6 million by 2030 and peaking at 1.669 million in 2040. That’s a lot of corpses to manage, and a sideshow of the demographic crisis is that there aren’t enough facilities available to “process” these bodies. Japan does not have enough crenother new trend affecting the funeral industry called jmatoria, or kasōba.

The simplest solution is to build more, and that’s not a problem in rural areas, but in heavily populated cities it is difficult to secure land, and not just because it’s more expensive. Regulations and the sentiments of residents figure heavily in granting permits to build crematoria and funeral homes, and most people don’t want to live next to them. In addition, anyone who invests in a crematorium or funeral home has to look to the future, and after 2040 the number of deaths will start to drop.

So existing crematoria must increase capacity in order to handle the demand for the next 20 years, a task that calls for greater flexibility and streamlining. Some rural crematoria and funeral homes are trying to pick up more business by advertising their services in cities, persuading people to have their loved ones shipped to them for cremation and interment. According to the Sankei Shimbun, Komatsu in Ishikawa Prefecture is seeing some success in this regard with its “O-soshiki wa Furusato” (“Funerals in Your Hometown”) campaign.

But there’s another new trend affecting the funeral industry called chokusō, a new word that means “direct cremation.” Normally, after a person dies, his or her family contacts a funeral service company, which arranges everything — cremation, Buddhist ceremony, reception for guests, hearse, coffin, etc. But another demographic change has been the shrinking of households, and an increasing number of people are dying without extended families or circles of acquaintances. There may only be a sibling or a child — or even an unrelated civil servant — to take care of the body, and they don’t necessarily want a funeral, so they’ve been calling crematoria directly, bypassing funeral service companies.

In an article in Nikkei Business, journalist Hidenori Ukai explains that this trend has developed of its own accord in the Tokyo metropolitan area in recent years. Chokusō is spurred by two changes: a more casual attitude toward death and a desire to save money. He says that one out of every three death services being performed in the Tokyo metro area now is chokusō. Many of these services involve people seeing off someone as individuals rather than as families or groups.

Ukai talked to a crematorium manager in Yokohama who told him that he started getting inquiries for cremation services from “average people” several years ago and didn’t know what to do, since normally he dealt with funeral service companies. He would tell the caller that he only did cremations, and that he couldn’t supply hearses or coffins. Most callers were “desperate,” however, and said they didn’t need those things or would take care of it themselves. They were trying to keep matters as simple and inexpensive as possible.

Most crematoria are run by local governments, so they are not set up to make a profit. According to Ukai they tend to lose money, since cremation is considered a public health matter.

Yokohama, the second most populous city in Japan, only has five — four public and one private. The newest one is Nanbu Saijo, which was built in 1991 in anticipation of increased demand. It has 10 furnaces and two ceremonial halls. In the summer its operating hours are 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and usually carries out a maximum of 20 cremations a day. In the winter, when the number of deaths typically increases, they are open until 3:30 p.m. and carry out 26 cremations a day.

Tokyo’s 23 wards have nine crematoria, six of which are private and run by the company Tokyo Hakuzen. The reason for the preponderance of private facilities goes back to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the government initially banned cremation, a Buddhist practice, in order to boost State Shinto. All dead bodies were buried. That’s why there are so many large public cemeteries in Tokyo.

After only two years, however, the Tokyo government realized there wasn’t enough room for the burial of whole bodies, which also increased the risk of spreading diseases in such a densely populated city, so the ban on cremation was lifted and a businessman filled the resulting need by establishing Tokyo Hakuzen and building crematoria.

Burial continued, however, and it wasn’t until 1935 that the ratio of burial to cremation reached parity. Once heavy oil was introduced to the process, cremation became faster and more efficient. Nowadays, with the exception of services for specific religions, cremation accounts for almost 100 percent of all body disposal in Japan, by far the highest rate in the world. In contrast, the U.K. cremates 73 percent of its dead, China 49 percent and the U.S. 41 percent.

One of the biggest crematoria in Japan is Toda Saijo, in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, which cremates 14,000 bodies a year. It has 15 furnaces that are ranked according to speed of incineration. The lowest-grade furnaces cost ¥59,000, the highest-grade ¥177,000. Toda is private. The cost of cremation at Nambu in Yokohama, a public facility, is fixed: ¥12,000 for residents of the city, ¥50,000 for nonresidents.

When a family uses a funeral company, the costs vary according to the menu of services and whether or not the ceremony takes place at a mortuary or the family’s residence. The menu can include receptions for guests, who often are expected to give cash gifts to allay the costs. In return they receive tokens of appreciation. According to various websites we visited, the cost of these services, not including cremation, range from about ¥450,000 to ¥2 million.

Services that are limited to cremation can still involve prayers given by priests and the post-cremation custom of transferring the remains of the deceased into an urn. But crematoria managers advise to call as early as possible. Normally, you must wait at least 24 hours after time of death before cremating a body, and they usually limit reservations to up to seven days after death. In Tokyo and Yokohama right now, almost all crematoria are booked up solid, though there might be openings in the early morning. Unfortunately, if you’re not using a funeral service, there’s nothing to do but just call around until you find a crematorium with a free slot.

This situation has given rise to another new business: “hotels” that keep dead bodies on ice. Such facilities can be used for wakes if the family lives in, say, a condominium that doesn’t allow residents to keep dead bodies; or they can be used as storage places until a cremation slot is secured. Some temples have also started offering this service.

One such hotel in Kawasaki, a city with an acute shortage of crematoria, charges ¥9,000 a night. Reportedly, bookings are at 75 percent, higher than that for regular hotels in the city.

Yen for Living covers issues related to making, spending and saving money in Japan on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.