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.