National / Social Issues

Japan's nōkanshi traditional morticians give dearly departed a final farewell

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Yuko Nakajima says her job isn’t as pretty as portrayed in “Departures,” director Yojiro Takita’s Oscar-winning 2008 film about Japanese ritual morticians.

While the movie cast a tender light on the occupation, the 37-year-old says it can get messy and requires speed and nerves: The corpses she handles are in various stages of decomposition and are sometimes damaged beyond recognition. There’s also a certain amount of stigma associated with the trade in a society that considers death taboo.

“Some express contempt when I tell them I work with the dead, and my parents haven’t been completely supportive, either,” she said. “But once people see what we actually do, I’m sure they will understand the importance of our job.”

Nakajima is a nōkanshi, which can be translated to “encoffiner,” a term referring to traditional morticians who dress, clean up and, for an additional fee, bathe the deceased to prepare them for their final farewell. As one of six nōkanshi working for Aqua Quality Staff Co., a small company based in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, Nakajima spends her days driving from one body to the next.

And in a nation where deaths outpace births, her skills are highly sought after.

In 2017, Japan saw 1.34 million deaths — a postwar high — compared to a record low 940,000 births. After peaking in 2008, the nation’s population has been shrinking while the number of elderly grows.

As of September, those over 65 accounted for 28.1 percent of the population, or 35.57 million people. This figure is forecast to reach 39.21 million by 2040, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. By then, the number of women of child-bearing age is expected to decline so sharply that the population is estimated to drop by 15.5 million, equivalent to that of Zimbabwe.

The erosion of the family unit, meanwhile, has seen a surge in single-person households, especially among the elderly. This has also led to a reported rise in kodokushi (lonely deaths), a phenomenon where those living alone are found dead at their home, often going unnoticed for days and even weeks.

While the demographic trend may appear to be promising for the funeral industry, the truth isn’t that simple. Funeral prices have been falling as the number of deaths climb, in line with growing demand for smaller, simpler rituals.

“The industry isn’t growing,” said Katsuji Mizusaki, Nakajima’s boss and the president of the firm. “Many don’t want to splurge on flowers, gifts for funeral attendees or on the many other options funeral parlors offer. Rather, they often want a cremation and nothing much more.”

While funerals usually cost anywhere from ¥1 million to ¥2 million, alternative options are available for as cheap as ¥200,000 from companies that offer cremation packages that forgo wakes and memorial services. And since virtually all the dead are cremated in Japan, the practice of embalming for sanitary reasons has yet to go mainstream.

But no matter how bare-bones the process gets, Mizusaki said, nōkanshi funeral makeup artists — as they are commonly described in the industry — are in high demand.

From lipstick, gauze and facial makeup, Aqua Quality Staff
From lipstick and facial makeup to gauze, Aqua Quality Staff’s custom-made container is filled with various items its morticians use to treat the dead before sending them off on their final journey. | ALEX MARTIN

The 52-year-old’s company is subcontracted by larger funeral businesses that commission work. On an average day, Mizusaki says his firm takes care of 10 to 12 bodies from clients in the Kanto region.

“Funeral companies don’t inform us about the cause of death, so there’s a certain amount of suspense each time we meet a body,” he said. “I’ve seen corpses with their eyes popping out or body charred by fire. Occasionally we will open body bags to find bloody messes, in which case we need to stop the bleeding before changing them into clean clothes.”

While the condition of the bodies arriving at funeral parlors, homes and at crematoriums vary widely, Mizusaki and his team — who work in pairs — need to clean, shave, dress and apply dry ice and make up to the deceased all within an hour or so to make the next appointment. They can’t afford to spend longer — after the chief contractors take their cut, his firm is paid around ¥20,000 per body.

The job also requires more unique skills such as being able to read the atmosphere in the room and the body language of those family members who are present when performing their duties. Families of the deceased usually aren’t chatty, so it’s up to morticians to surmise the type of cosmetics, if any, they prefer to have applied to the departed. The trend a few decades ago was thick, over-the-top makeup, but nowadays people prefer a natural look, Mizusaki says.

When the facial structure is damaged, Mizusaki’s staff will use special-effects makeup to restore the lost features, an art that requires years of experience to perfect. Mizusaki shared pictures from his smartphone showing before and after images of a dead man who had lost part of his jaw and neck. After applying special makeup, his injury was almost unnoticeable.

Mana Kikuchi shows the cosmetics and special-effects makeup that are the wares of her trade in Tokyo on March 1.
Mana Kikuchi shows the cosmetics and special-effects makeup that are the tools of her trade in Tokyo on March 1. | ALEX MARTIN

“It involves both imagination and technique,” said Mana Kikuchi, a 43-year-old veteran at Aqua Quality Staff. Before she began working in this field, she was a certified caregiver for a business that offered bathing services for the elderly.

“The company also provided similar services for the deceased, and at one point in my career I was asked whether I’d like to bathe the living or the dead. I chose the latter since they are much easier to handle,” she said jokingly.

The bathing ceremony is known as yukan and typically involves a portable bathtub with a shower. The body is gently rinsed and hair shampooed for the purpose of cleansing or purifying the pollution of death. Kikuchi says, however, that its rare for them to be asked to perform the ritual, likely due to additional fees it generates.

“There may be one or two requests for yukan out of a 100,” she said.

Takemichi Odajima researched yukan and the professionals who conduct the ritual known as yukanshi — another term for a ritual mortician — for a graduation thesis for Tohoku Gakuen University’s graduate school. He focused on the intimacy yukanshi displayed when treating the bodies.

“There’s a moment when family members step out of the room while the deceased is being undressed and orifices are blocked with cotton, leaving the yukanshi alone with the body,” he said.

“But instead of becoming careless, the yukanshi I’ve seen gently talked to the dead as if they were their living relatives.”

Takemichi Odajima, who has been researching yukanshi, tries out a coffin in Osaka in July 2018.
Takemichi Odajima, who has researched yukanshi, a term for a ritual mortician, tries out a coffin in Osaka in July 2018. | PHOTO COURTESY OF TAKEMICHI ODAJIMA

Respecting the dead and their dignity is vital to the occupation.

Mizusaki has been in the funeral business for three decades, first as a temporary worker for funeral operators, before launching his own company 10 years ago. Born in Nagano Prefecture, he played upright bass for a rockabilly band before stepping into the industry.

“Who would have known I’d be dealing daily with the dead,” he said.

It’s been quite a ride. He recalls one time he and Nakajima took care of an elderly man. The body was largely unharmed and required nothing more than a clean shave to be presentable. When the two finished and invited the dead man’s son into the room to examine his late father, he burst into tears.

“Upon seeing his father, the son cried and said he found no comfort in the sutras that Buddhist priests chanted for his dead father. But he said he felt saved by our work,” Mizusaki said. “We were somewhat taken aback by the impassioned reaction, but this is what gives us the motivation to continue.”

As for Nakajima, who is mother to a child who started middle-school in April, an occasion arose some time ago to showcase what she does to her family.

“When my grandmother passed away, I volunteered to take care of her,” she said.

“I changed her clothes and applied makeup while my family watched. They didn’t say anything at the time, but I know my father realized the weight of what we do.”