Several years ago the Ishihama Shrine, located in Arakawa Ward along the Sumida River, announced it would expand its graveyard, prompting protests from local residents that reflects the usual cultural queasiness about anything associated with death. In this case it was manifested in a straightforward economic concern: The local homeowners and small businesses were afraid that the cemetery might bring down their property values.
It may be a valid complaint given that the expansion was carried out for economic purposes. According to the man in charge of selling plots, his company saw a business opportunity and suggested the expansion to the shrine. The company, Nichiryoku, would develop the small adjoining plot of land and sell squares of it along with monuments to people who needed family graveyards.
We asked if only people who followed the Shinto religion are allowed to buy plots, and he said that Buddhists and even Christians were welcome as well, meaning that, while the land was owned by a Shinto organization, the graveyard was, in effect, nondenominational. That might sound mercenary or even hypocritical, since Shinto burial practices (no incense, no memorial) are different from Buddhist practices, but religion has always been fluid in Japan. Spiritual activities have more to do with circumstances than with belief systems.
Public cemeteries in Japan are nonaffiliated, of course, but an increasing number of private and religion-associated ones are opening their graves, so to speak, to anyone with cash. In fact, terms of ownership seem to be based more on financial considerations than on spiritual ones. For instance, family graves, regardless of religion, are in principle reserved only for the immediate family, meaning the head of household, his wife and his eldest male heir, who “takes over” the grave. The heir’s wife and first-born male child then can have their ashes interred in the grave, but other children have to start family graves of their own. This lineage system guarantees that the grave is maintained.
The plot is “bought” for a sum, but it is more like a charge for usage in perpetuity (eidan shiyoryo). In addition, the heir pays a yearly fee to the shrine or temple or public/private organization administering the cemetery and takes care of it himself. If fees are not paid for a set number of years and the heir cannot be contacted, the cemetery can dismantle the memorial, remove the remains to a common grave and sell the plot to someone else. That’s why so many heirs move their family graves when they themselves move to a new city.
Prices for plots in Ishihama’s new graveyard range from ¥740,000 to ¥950,000, and sizes start at .55 sq. meters. The cost includes the memorial, which explains why the cemetery, half full at the moment, looks more like a storage area for memorials than a graveyard. The yearly kanri-hi (management fee) is ¥12,000, which seems to be the going price in central Tokyo. The annual charges at a private, nonaffiliated cemetery in Machida start at ¥3,600, but that cemetery also offers a wider variety of grave options, from the tiny (.425 sq. meters: ¥770,000) to the turf-embroidered (1.25 sq. meters: ¥1,290,000).
Public graveyards can get expensive as well. As with residential and commercial properties it’s all about location. The famous Aoyama Cemetery charges between ¥4.8 and ¥10 million per plot and the average price of a spot at Yanaka Cemetery, where the dead include some of Japan’s most famous historical figures, is about ¥3 million. Unlike a lot of new graveyards, these two have trees and flowers and benches, which is probably why there’s a waiting list.
Most for-profit cemeteries make up for this lack of pastoral filigree by offering big parking lots and facilities where visitors can have lunch and take a rest. And, of course, the farther you get from the center of town, the cheaper it gets, but you have to keep in mind that since Japanese people are cremated, regardless of religion, postage-stamp graves are the norm. If you want something to accomodate a coffin you’ll pay accordingly and probably have to look around a bit.
Of course, Ishihama Shrine gets a substantial tax-free piece of the action when Nichiryoku sells a plot. And it isn’t just Shintoism that makes a killing from the grave business. When Buddhist remains are interred, the associated temple gives the deceased a special sacred name, and the more you pay, the “better” the name. So while you still can’t take it with you, at least you can show other souls in the afterlife that you once had it.