TOKYO (AFP) - Specialists in the fading profession of preparing bodies for funeral and cremation in Japan gave a rare glimpse of their skills at the Tuesday (Dec 8) opening of a Tokyo exhibition focused on the business of death and dying.
Practitioners of "nokan" - translated as "encoffinment" - took part in what organisers said was Japan's first ever contest to demonstrate their techniques, as a pianist and a guitarist played peaceful, relaxing music.
The contestants demonstrated their skill over the course of 15 minutes in dressing live models who laid still on Japanese-style futons, or floor mattresses.
Ms Sayuri Takahashi knelt gracefully before a motionless female figure on the floor, gently manoeuvring the arms and legs to dress her in a shirt, slacks and socks, the light of artificial candles flickering behind.
The partially clothed model was covered with a Japanese-style robe to hide exposed skin, the favoured way of dressing the dead to maintain modesty when family members are watching.
The competition was part of the inaugural Life Ending Industry Expo, which attracted more than 200 companies in the business of death.
The craft of the specialists, who are known as "nokanshi", is declining in Japan's bigger cities but remains fairly common in the country's rural areas.
The work overlaps somewhat with that of morticians in Western countries, though in Japan embalming of bodies is rare and wakes and funerals are still sometimes held in the family home.
It came to worldwide attention in 2009 when the Japanese film Departures won the Oscar for best foreign language film for its depiction of an out-of-work cellist who becomes a nokanshi in smalltown Japan.
"We wanted the public to know more about nokanshi as there weren't enough specialists after the 2011 disaster," said competition organiser Koki Kimura, referring to the devastating earthquake off Japan's north-eastern coast and subsequent tsunami on March 11 of that year in which more than 15,000 people died.
A panel of three judges examined not only how well the models were dressed but also how gracefully the nokanshi completed the whole process.
"The kindness and politeness towards the family of the deceased combined with efficiency are key," Shinji Kimura, one of the judges and a former adviser to the lead actor in Departures, told AFP.
"We want to do our best for the final departure of the deceased," said Kimura, who has 30 years of experience as a nokanshi. "So it should not be mechanical."
Ms Takahashi, the 27-year-old winner who was awarded a trophy and an undisclosed sum, said she started her job three years ago after learning about the profession following a death in her own family where the body was attended to by a nokanshi.
"My relative's face looked peaceful," she told AFP after the contest, adding that the Oscar-winning movie also inspired her choice.
"I'm most happy when the family of the deceased tell me they're grateful for what I did."