Try Before You Buy a Coffin: Death Business Thrives in Japan

Japan's Aging Population Sparks $16B Business Boom
  • Earthquake fears, living alone have even young planning deaths
  • Old saying: ‘A bird does not mess up the nest when it goes’

Akira Okomoto sat up and climbed out of a coffin.

"It was very relaxing," he proclaimed, as his 27-year-old daughter, Miwa, then trepidatiously took her turn lying down for five minutes in the dark enclosure that would one day be her final resting place.

Miwa Okamoto
Miwa Okamoto
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The scene is a cafe in eastern Tokyo where a handful of people have gathered to hear a talk by a death expert and try out the cafe’s Coffin Experience, which owner Masumi Murata says helps people "cherish each and every day and realize what’s really important" by pondering their own deaths.

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011 killed more than 15,000 people. The ground below the 36 million residents of the Tokyo area rumbles spasmodically with minor earthquakes in an ever-present threat. Combined with these continual reminders, Japan has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world where more and more people, old and young, are living alone. Millions of Japanese saw the hit film Departures, about the respectability of an undertaker’s profession, which won the 2009 Academy Award for foreign film. 

All this has made talk of death commonplace in Japan -- and prompted a number of companies including Aeon Co., Japan’s largest retailer operating supermarkets and malls, and Yahoo Japan Corp. to enter the industry catering to it, known as shukatsu.

Living Alone

"The old Japanese saying is, ‘A bird does not mess up the nest when it goes,’ and people were traditionally taken care of by family members when they died," said Akio Doteuchi, a researcher at NLI Research Institute. "Now, not only the elderly but also the middle-aged and even younger people are worried about living alone and being socially isolated. The earthquake and tsunami in 2011 helped people realize that again."

Life Ending Industry Expo
Life Ending Industry Expo
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A three-day industry expo in early December, the first of its sort, drew 220 companies exhibiting their businesses related to death to more than 22,000 visitors, according to Mayumi Tominaga, an expo spokeswoman. Products included grave stones, hearses and balloons to carry ashes to the sky, while professional encoffiners held a competition for their skill in changing dead people’s clothes. 

Further Expansion

"The range of shukatsu services is expected to further expand as people seek various options to handle their deaths," said Takuji Mitsuda, chief management consultant at consultancy Funai Soken Inc., who puts the size of the industry at about 2 trillion yen ($16.5 billion). "The Departures film gave Japanese a chance to ponder death. The Tohoku earthquake killed people’s loved ones and made them feel that their lives aren’t certain either. People started doing shukatsu to cherish their ‘now’ more and more, because of those events that made them aware of death."

Data from market research firm Yano Research, which was provided by Aeon, show the industry has grown 7 percent from 1.83 trillion yen in 2011.

Yahoo Japan last year started Yahoo Ending, which lets users set up a free electronic memorial for themselves after death, handles their online data, documents and photos according to their wishes, and sends final e-mails stored in Yahoo’s servers to family and friends after death. Yahoo doesn’t disclose subscriber numbers other than that they’re in the thousands, mostly people in their 30s and 40s paying 180 yen a month to keep their final e-mails stored, and it hopes to raise it to tens of thousands soon, said Shinsuke Takahashi, who leads the project.

"The Internet and reality need to be connected to solve various issues around death," Takahashi said. "I believe the shukatsu boom will last a long time."

Ending Notes

Stationery maker Kokuyo Co. has sold half a million 1,550-yen "ending note" notebooks since late 2010, said Hiromi Waki, a company spokesman. Not only the elderly, but people in their 20s and 30s are using the books to record bank accounts, funeral wishes and other necessary information in the event of their deaths in an accessible place for others to find, he said.

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami "had a huge impact" on people’s desire to plan for death, according to Fumitaka Hirohara, chief executive officer of Aeon’s funeral planning subsidiary, Aeon Life Co.

"It left the feeling that you never know what will happen to you tomorrow, and if something bad or unexpected really happens, you would cause trouble to other people" by not planning sufficiently, he said in an interview.

Trusts Increase

Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking Corp. has seen a 26 percent increase in the past five years in trusts that pay out after death, to more than 30,500. It started distributing ending notebooks to clients two years ago to help them with planning, according to Toshihiko Taniguchi, chief manager of retail trust assets administration. The notebooks are "an easy way for our clients to think about property succession, and also certainly helping us to get a client’s detailed profile like family structure as they write down that personal and sensitive information."

Ending notebooks
Ending notebooks
Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Ending notebooks are becoming popular among the elderly as well. At the Tokiwadaira Danchi apartment complex in Chiba prefecture east of Tokyo, 44 percent of residents of the more than 5,300 households are now older than 65. As living and dying alone becomes an issue, the complex’s community group asked people to write down information about themselves and detailed instructions and preferences regarding funerals and medical interventions in case they become unable to communicate.

Avoiding Trouble

"What I care about most is how I can avoid becoming trouble for someone," said Tatsuo Miyauchi, an 87-year-old who has been living alone since losing his wife 18 years ago. "I don’t want to be found dead and rotten in my room."

The couple had no children, so Miyauchi, who can still speak clearly and walks to the supermarket by himself, is making his death arrangements on his own. He recently went to a professional photo studio to take a funeral portrait, wearing a dark-gray suit, which he put into a pocket of the notebook.

Japan’s rapidly aging population means its annual mortality rate is expected to surge 27 percent to a peak of 1.67 million by 2040, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

The coffin-trying cafe, called Blue Ocean after the locale of an ashes-sprinkling service also offered by its owner, opened in February and serves up products and services such as a method to compress your loved one’s ashes into diamond jewelry -- as well as its regular coffee and snacks menu. It draws a dozen or so people to its bimonthly coffin events designed to prepare people for death.

Coffin-Trying

Aeon, which operates 100 death seminar events a year, also offers coffin-trying to potential buyers at its malls and seeks to sell funeral packages, the most popular priced at 500,000 yen, to Japanese seniors willing to make advance arrangements. People feel relieved once they’re done and they can get on with enjoying their rest of their lives, CEO Hirohara said. Formerly in Japan, the eldest son used to take over the family house and tend the family graves, but now with people moving to big cities and leaving their home towns behind, they don’t know whom to ask to plan their funerals and don’t have family grave sites, he said.

A "shukatsu" seminar at an Aeon mall
A "shukatsu" seminar at an Aeon mall
Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

"When we started organizing shukatsu events at the shopping malls five years ago, few people came. Once they looked at words like death and funeral, they ran away," he said. "People’s attitudes toward death are becoming more positive."

Some 80,000 people have signed up for Aeon’s death-planning services, an increase of 10,000 over mid-last year, according to an Aeon spokeswoman. Aeon shares have soared 35 percent over the past two years, compared with 26 percent increases on both the benchmark Topix and Nikkei 225 indexes.

Emi Takamura, 59, attended a recent Aeon coffin-trying seminar with her husband, as they aren’t "so far away" from their eventual deaths, she said.

Emi Takamura
Emi Takamura
Photographer: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

"I have seen the sudden deaths of young friends and relatives," said Takamura, who said lying in the coffin made her ponder what it’s like to be dead. "My understanding was that shukatsu is to prepare for the end, but today I learned that it’s meant to be something to help you enjoy the rest of your life."

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