By Jake Adelstein and Amy Yoshida-Plambeck
Japan has too many bodies to burn.
It’s all part of a new old Japan that has graduated from “the aging society” to “the many dying society.”
There’s a buzz word—and sort of a buzz-kill word–that’s increasingly being bandied about here now–多死社会 (ta-shi-shakai). You could translate it as “high-mortality society,” or maybe “many dying community.” But the real meaning is closer to “a society where more people are dying than being born.”
The number of deaths in Japan reached a record high last year, with more than 1.56 million people passing away. As Japan’s death rate outstrips the number of new births, there’s an unexpected shortage of crematoriums—and a booming “end of life” business.
Due to this surge in deaths, a growing issue of “waiting for cremation” has emerged. 1 in 10 cities suffers a shortage now, according to an industry study. Sometimes, families must wait up to 12 days for a cremation slot, leading to additional storage costs for the deceased’s body.
But the problem isn’t just a lack of crematoriums. Rising demand for means and methods of dealing with the dead has caused an unexpected business boom for cold storage manufacturers, private crematoriums, and cosmetics and preservatives for the dead.
And you find out about all of it at ENDEX.
ENDEX: The Trade Fair of the Dead
Here in Japan, death doesn’t mean your impact on other’s lives has come to an end. With a tradition of visiting family graves and Buddhist traditions of holding scheduled memorial services for the departed–even when someone physically dies, they remain a part of the lives of the living for years to come.
We went to this year’s ENDEX: (The End Of Life Exhibition) the largest business platform involved in the funeral, memorial service, and burial industry in Japan –with a whole colorful trove of exhibitors to learn how Japan is coping with the myriad problems of a “dying society.”
The End of Life Exhibition (ENDEX for short) is Japan’s largest gathering of end-of-life industry professionals. This was the 9th outing for the event and perhaps the biggest yet. From August 29th to August 31st, over 12,000 people attended.
ENDEX as Launching Pad
Here, death isn’t dark. It’s gray. It’s a topic handled with a curious combination of nonchalance, tact, and an appropriate amount of levity at ENDEX. While descending the escalator into the oppressively gray exhibition hall at Tokyo Big Sight, we were greeted by a festive display of brightly colored balloons, swaying gently in the breeze granted by the air conditioning units above the booths. Later, we were informed that these balloons are used to send a canister of ashes into the Earth’s atmosphere.
They aren’t the only company aiming skyward. One space funeral service, Space NTK, did their first successful launch from Florida in April of last year after a business partnership with none other than Elon Musk’s SpaceX  . The staff, clad in galaxy print shirts, teased “You’re journalists, so you must hate Elon.” We sheepishly replied in the affirmative.
Luckily for us apartheid-bocchan-hating journalists , the space funeral service only spoke to SpaceX co-founder Tom Mueller, who apparently spoke in proper Japanese. The star-spangled space funeral directors proudly showed us the site where you could see where the ashes of the loved ones were in Earth’s orbit. As of August 29 around 2 pm JST, it was just to the right of India.
The firm has an endearing slogan: BECOME THE STAR THAT YOU ARE… & LEAVE THE LAST STAGE OF YOUR LIFE TO NTK.
They do offer to orbit your ashes around the earth as your spirit travels through the journey described in the Bardo Thodol, and eventually, the satellite falls to earth turning your ashes (and their container) into a shooting star–along with the other people and pets aboard.
But for many, it might take some time to get to the balloon or the spaceship after death. Using 2019 figures, a staggering 99.97% of the deceased are cremated in Japan – the highest in the world. Crematoria are having difficulty keeping up with the increased death rate to the point where some have a waitlist, especially in more populous areas. The Chief Director of The Japan Society of Environmental Crematory (日本環境斎苑協会), Akio Okumura, says that 12% of Japan has a shortage of crematoriums. Nearly half of those running need serious repairs. “Waiting times in some areas for a cremation slot can be over a week and now we’ve started to see the emergence of corpse hotels,” he told Jake, after his lecture on Our Country and The State of Cremation and Concerns on August 31st.
The solution? Barring more crematoriums which face local opposition, it’s fridges and perfume.
One company dealing with refrigerators for corpses has sold 1000 units to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police in the last two decades, but the annual sales keep increasing with unidentified or unclaimed bodies on the rise. They had two models on display; a large unit where the bodies could be stored parallel to the back wall, and one where two bodies could fit by sliding onto a rack perpendicular to the wall. The fridges have an anti-frost function and the lower and upper sections can be turned off individually to save electricity if only one body is being stored. The amount of electricity consumed at full capacity was surprisingly low. The average household refrigerator uses 100 watts of electricity per hour; the two-person unit uses a mere 300.
Looking One’s Best at ENDEX
But in many cases, the body isn’t moved until it can be moved to the crematorium, meaning some families have to keep the corpse of their loved one at home until a cremation slot opens. To address the problems that can arise in this scenario, the company Toubi (統美) makes posthumous perfumes and reconstructive make-up for the departed.
Many families choose to have a viewing of the body before cremation, and beauty products for the deceased can be essential. Toubi can handle bodies left in the heat or those who died alone and were not discovered for several days. Most of their work centers on the face of the deceased, and their reconstructive work is comprehensive and detailed.
When the famous wrestler Antonio Inoki passed away, the funeral parlor taking care of his remains immediately called this company–to ensure that Inoki left this world in prime condition.
Masking the smell of decomposition requires subtlety, so their perfumes are designed to be non-offensive and as natural as possible. However, the smell is secondary to its other features. Yasuoka Sakurako from the marketing division sprayed some on her arm to let us smell two different versions; we liked the lavender. When one of us asked whether it was possible to give a sample to their significant other as a souvenir, Yasuoka-san didn’t shake her head no, but she did tilt her head to the side and made a slight grimace. The perfume apparently did more than smell nice. It helps slow the rate of decay.
“It has a lot of what amounts to embalming fluid, so it’s probably not good for a living person.” Note taken.
Tobi had one of the most compelling marketing strategies at ENDEX. In true Japanese fashion, they encapsulate their product and ethos using a cute character. This time, it was a little boy in the colorful late stages of decomposition.
In a small illustrated pamphlet-cum-storybook titled “What Happens After I Die,” the boy, in a dream, sees himself go through each step of decay–until he resembles a green zombie. Our poor hero notes that four hours after death, “Somehow, my stomach really hurts.” The text notes, “The enzymes that normally digest food start to melt the internal organs, and the inside of your body begins to rot.”
At least the accompanying illustrations are cute, though.
Part of the story predictably includes explanations of how Toubi’s products and services can mitigate the most unpleasant elements of death, but Yasuoka-san explained that the story serves as a helpful educational tool for the bereaved. Imagine if you have a household where the body is being stored until a funeral parlor, crematorium or corpse hotel opening can be found.
After all, the death industry only begins with death. Toubi uses this pamphlet to reduce the many uncertainties the bereaved face. Yasuoka-san went on to say that they tried several central characters – parents, grandparents – but they were all too scary for kids. The cutest storyline was the most effective. Next to the table were cute illustrated cardboard cut-outs of the Toubi mascot (peri- and post-mortem) that visitors could take pictures with. Pointing to the post-mortem mascot, Yasuoka-san earnestly told us that “they can turn green, you know,” and proved it with very graphic photos pulled up on an iPad, which was ready to go on a small table.
The Virtual Mourning Plain
Many, if not most, ENDEX exhibitors dealt with some form of grief care – helping the living come to terms with the passage of others. One company offered a virtual wake service as a customizable interactive website depicting a funeral hall where one can write messages, view and post photos, and even make donations. Another company with an Oculus headset on their table was in the business of developing serene VR cemetery plots. A Buddhist monk at the event told us that visiting graves via Zoom is in high demand.
Adapting these rituals using modern technology can help eliminate obstacles that keep people away from the comfort offered by traditional rituals. But few seek more resources when rituals aren’t enough to recover from a loss.
The president of My Sherpa, which provides online grief counseling, says that only 3% of people in Japan receive grief counseling, compared to 12% in the United States.
My Sherpa struggled to gain traction at first. But the pandemic led users to seek out online counseling. My Sherpa now serves 150 companies, providing grief counseling to their employees, and works with individuals as well. In 2022, they consoled roughly 5,000 people. This year, it’s nearly 10,000 already. There’s a need for people to talk about death and work through their grief.
A Daunting Task
Funerals can be both a comfort and a burden, and end-of-life preparations in Japan are particularly complicated. The term often used for this process now in 終活 (Shukatsu) or “end (of life) activities”. It a homonym for the youthful and important term “就活” “looking for employment activities” which are the bane of college life.
The founder of MySherpa, Dr. Ryohei Matsumoto, who is a psychiatrist and occupational physician, says “Japan considers silent suffering a virtue. There’s a stigma about talking about sadness and depression. And there’s great pressure on the oldest son or daughter in a family to not only take care of the elderly, but also arrange the funeral. It’s a very trying time for them.”
It comes with a considerable cost of both money and time that can be incredibly daunting. The responsibility of caring for the dead, by the way, rarely ends – death anniversaries, annual grave-visiting holidays, grave upkeep, and dues.
The Cost of Death
People without children or living relatives know their remains may face a stark fate. Even if their ashes are interred in a grave, when the upkeep fees stop being paid, their bones will be evicted, and the grave will be offered up to new non-“deadbeat” clientele.
That’s why one enterprising Buddhist temple was at the event offering a sweet deal in an ossuary–a 22-year lease on a gold-laid room for your bones (in an urn) for as little as 3 million yen. The moderately sized ascension room guarantees a 23rd memorial service. You can negotiate the number of spirits enshrined (or the amount of remains that can be stored).
Personally, I’d opt for the purple room option, which is for 32 years (33rd memorial service included). You get an entire altar to yourself for only 7,500,000 yen. A great idea if you don’t want to leave your children (or future children) anything.
Hmmm…we might pass on that one.
A more affordable option might be to buy a Hello Kitty funeral urn, tiny and cute, and have the bones left over the fireplace. No one would then be bothered by this casual encounter with death. (Although, in Japan you might still end up as an ashtray if someone staying at the house was a smoker and culturally clueless.)
Diamonds are Forever
If you want to keep your loved one close to home, there are several businesses at ENDEX that can take the ashes and bones of the departed and using advanced technology transform them into diamonds or sapphires which you can display or wear. And they’re wonderful conversation pieces.
“That’s a beautiful diamond necklace, Hiroko.”
“Thank you. I had it made from the bones of my dead Grandma.”
There’s no denying that death is increasingly becoming a part of life in Japan. The added logistic difficulty of there being too many deaths at once compounds the level of complexity required for both families and end-of-life professionals.
But with a delicate balance of reverence and a bit of fun, ENDEX showcases the businesses that are trying to make death less daunting– promising that this is just the beginning of how Japan handles the end.
Photographs by Jake Adelstein.