Posts Tagged ‘funerals’

Where there’s a will: Attitudes toward inheritance change

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Who'll be the next in line?

Who’ll be the next in line?

About a million people die every year in Japan, and 10 percent of them leave wills (yuigonsho). That’s a smaller portion than in the English-speaking West — the BBC says about a third of British adults have wills and USA Today reports 59 percent of American baby boomers have written them — but it’s still larger than other Asian countries (about 1 percent in South Korea) and the number is growing every year.

Legal experts advocate wills as the only effective means of properly disposing of one’s assets after death, but in Japan they’ve traditionally been seen as disruptive. Japanese law outlines methods of inheritance and even stipulates shares for specific family relationships. But family ties have been strained in recent decades owing to shifting social demographics and economic trends. A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun reports that more and more people are dying without any clear beneficiaries. In 2012, ¥37.5 billion left behind by people who died was taken by the government because the deceased had no family willing to claim the body and the person’s property. According to the Supreme Court, this amount is three times what it was a decade ago.

When a person dies without spouses or children, or when those heirs have forfeited their right to the deceased’s assets, the proper court appoints an administrator to dispose of the estate. If the deceased had debts, the administrator repays them out of the available assets. If the deceased had a caregiver, the administrator may offer the person part of those assets. But for the most part the unclaimed money and proceeds from property goes to the central government.

One Yokohama lawyer in the Asahi article talks about his experiences as an administrator, which starts with going to the home of a person who has just died and “cleaning up.” He says he often finds large amounts of cash hidden behind or inside furniture, and now conducts seminars where he tells middle aged and older people about the importance of wills, partly as a means of showing their gratitude to those who helped them in life, regardless of whether or not those people are relatives. When the reporter talks to people who attend the lawyer’s seminar, some admit to having no contact with family and one says he feels compelled to draw up a will because he’s afraid of what might happen to his legacy if it all goes to his irresponsible son.

People in the West who don’t write wills are usually intimidated by the cost of lawyers or just plain scared of thinking about death. In Japan, while speaking of death is still a taboo for most people, the scarcity of wills can mainly be attributed to ignorance. The lawyer in the Asahi article implies that the authorities don’t promote wills because they make money when people die without heirs.

A recent trend that has boosted the status of wills is “ending notes.” Popularized by a hit 2011 documentary about a dying man’s last days, ending notes are books that help people think about their deaths. They explain different processes and often have diary-like features so that readers can write down their thoughts about death and what they want in terms of late-term care, a funeral and the disposal of their remains.

Ending notes actually compel readers to think about their lives right now by making them face the inevitability of death, and so rather than push away such thoughts they force the reader to consider measures such as DNR (do not resuscitate) declarations and last wills and testaments. Ending notes have also been commercialized to a certain extent, and some non-profit groups now hold seminars on the subject of shukatsu (final activities). Funeral homes participate in ending note plans and some banks even have programs to help people think about what they want to do with their assets after they die. According to a survey of people over 60 conducted by Research Bank, 49 percent said they wanted to write ending notes.

But ending note diaries are not legal documents. A will needs to be notarized if it is to hold up in court. One reason wills were previously unpopular in Japan is that when they were contested by family members, courts often sided with the plaintiffs, but that isn’t necessarily the case any more. According to one will-writing website, 7,767 wills were notarized in 1966. The number in 2009 was 76,436. Moreover, in 1985, Japanese courts heard 2,661 inheritance-related lawsuits. That number increased to 9,800 by 2008, and in the same year family courts nationwide received 154,160 requests for advice with regard to inheritance problems. More than 70 percent of all legal disputes over inheritance involve assets of more than ¥50 million. Obviously, you can’t take it with you, but older Japanese are now wising up to the fact that they don’t have to let it pass on to people they can’t stand.

Package funeral services take the (financial) sting out of dying

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Funeral hearse

Your ride’s here

The Tokyo metropolitan government  has launched a jumokuso service for individuals. Jumokuso means “tree funeral.” For a fee, a person can have his or her ashes buried at the foot of a tree planted in a special park in Kodaira. The financial advantage of this particular burial model is that the person pays only once. Most remains are interred in family graves located in graveyards that are managed by either local governments or religious entities. Graveyards require kanriryo (administration fees) in perpetuity.

In principle, a jumokuso customer will have his ashes mixed with other customers. It costs ¥134,000 for roughly cremated remains and ¥44,000 for remains that have already been reduced to ash (a more involved and thus more expensive process). Enough space for 10,700 people is being planned for the park, and the first group of 500 “plots” was recently sold via lottery. There were 8,169 applicants.

Obviously, many people are not attached to the traditional Japanese style of burial any more, and it probably has a lot to do with the traditional funerals that go with it, which can be extremely expensive. A recent Asahi Shimbun article described a woman in her 60s who was shocked when she received the bill for her husband’s funeral. The funeral service company had quoted ¥1.7 million for the whole thing, but the invoice came to ¥2.6 million.

Continue reading about the funeral business in Japan →

Summertime, and the dying is expensive

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010


Yoshida-san, we hardly knew ye

This is o-bon week in Japan, when the dead come back to visit the living briefly, so it’s as good a time as any to talk about the high cost of dying here. In 2009, 1.069 million humans were born in Japan as opposed to 1.44 million who died. Whatever that says about population shifts, morticians are obviously set to make a better living than obstetricians and midwives. In fact, the funeral business is doing horrendously well in Japan. The average funeral in Japan costs ¥2.31 million, about five times the average cost in the No. 2 funeral country, the United States (about ¥444,000). From there things just get reasonable: Korea, ¥373,000; Germany, ¥198,000; UK, ¥123,000.

The above figures are from theologian Hiroshi Shimada’s book “Soshiki wa Iranai” (Funerals Are Unnecessary). Obviously, Shimada doesn’t think much of the funeral business, mainly because it’s very much a business, even the so-called spiritual side. As the world now knows from the Oscar-winning movie “Okuribito,” the Japanese take very special care of dead bodies, but all that beauty of purpose and elaborate ritual comes with a price, and funeral homes try to make it easy for bereaved families by pulling all the various ceremonial necessities into a package that takes into consideration cremation, flowers; and because people are busy nowadays, the various time memorials, like the wake, the 7th-day observation, the 35th-day observation, etc., are all combined into a one-day funeral ceremony. The average price of the package is ¥1.5 million, with an extra ¥386,000 for feeding guests. This latter cost can be offset by the cash donations mourners traditionally bring to funerals, and Shimada again figures the average amount they will fork out is ¥750,000.

But all those sums still don’t add up to ¥2.31 million. The remainder is the payment that the family of the deceased pays to the temple where the remains will be interred. The priest who prays over the soul of the dead receives anywhere from ¥50,000 to ¥150,000, and that’s just for the prayer. Shimada points out what a racket this is by revealing that no one really knows how much one pays a Buddhist priest for a prayer, and so some people don’t take any chances and just give him way too much. Of course, he doesn’t refuse.

But the temple’s biggest charge is for bestowing a kaimyo, the special name that is given to an individual who becomes a Buddhist priest. Only in Japan, however, is this practice extended to the dead, who can basically become priests in the afterlife. And, as mentioned in an earlier post, the more money you pay, the better the posthumous name. Shimada says that Japanese temples basically make the bulk of their living not only from funeral rituals, but from this naming practice. Temples do not have regular services the way churches in the West do, and so do not have opportunities to collect contributions. They cater to the dead; or, more exactly, the survivors.

According to Shimada, this practice is maintained by a widespread belief that the law actually requires funerals, which, of course, isn’t true at all. “Processing” the dead is relatively inexpensive without the attendant ritual. The family must wait 24 hours after their loved one has been declared dead by the proper authority, and then they can just ship the body to a crematorium and collect the ashes. In fact, before World War II, most people did this and had ceremonies at home that did not involve morticians or priests. Again, you can blame urbanization. Most families don’t have the room in their condos to hold a funeral, nor the land to house a grave. The funeral business is also special in that customers tend to accept being gouged because of the somber circumstances: They’re vulnerable. Shimada says this aspect is changing somewhat. Families now actually ask funeral providers for cost breakdowns, whereas in the past they just received an unspecified bill and paid it.

Shimada is encouraged that Japanese are becoming more versatile with regard to funerals; scattering ashes and that sort of thing (though the legality of ash-throwing is tricky in Japan). Then, again, you can always opt for a Shinto ceremony, which is pretty elemental, and on average will set you back only ¥750,000.


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