Preparing for the end is a thriving $23b business in Japan

A participant at the Coffin Experience event in Tokyo, Japan, last month. A three-day industry expo earlier this month, the first of its sort, drew 220 companies exhibiting businesses related to death to more than 22,000 visitors.
A participant at the Coffin Experience event in Tokyo, Japan, last month. A three-day industry expo earlier this month, the first of its sort, drew 220 companies exhibiting businesses related to death to more than 22,000 visitors.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO • Mr 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.

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 realise 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 reminders, Japan has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world where 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 2008 Academy Award for foreign language film. 

All this has made talk of death commonplace in Japan and prompted a number of companies, including Aeon - Japan's largest retailer operating supermarkets and malls, and Yahoo Japan to enter the industry catering to it, which is known as "shukatsu" or preparing for the end.

A three-day industry expo earlier this month, the first of its sort, drew 220 companies exhibiting businesses related to death to more than 22,000 visitors.

Products included gravestones, hearses and balloons to carry ashes to the sky, while professional encoffiners held a competition for their skill in changing dead people's clothes.  One industry expert puts the size of the industry at about 2 trillion yen (S$23 billion).

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

"I have seen the sudden deaths of young friends and relatives," she said, noting that lying in the coffin made her ponder what it is like to be dead.

"My understanding was that shukatsu is to prepare for the end, but today I learnt that it's meant to be something to help you enjoy the rest of your life."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Preparing for the end is a thriving $23b business in Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe