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PoliticsWorldJapanese reform funeral rituals, seeing costs escalate to highest in world

Japanese reform funeral rituals, seeing costs escalate to highest in world

Even before a $ 12 million state funeral for former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe prompted a public outcry, the Japanese have long grumbled about funeral costs, the highest in the world. Now, an increasing number of grieving families are opting for low-key send-offs, with the pandemic providing an extra reason to avoid large ceremonies.

The average spending per funeral in the past year was 1.1 million yen ($ 7,725), down 40% from an earlier, pre-Covid survey, according to Kamakura Shinsho Ltd, an online information service specialising in elderly care, funerals and graves. That's still around a quarter of the average annual and doesn't cover extra costs such as offerings to monks. Including additional expenses, Japanese funerals cost around 3 million yen before the pandemic, around three to four times what's spent in the US and Europe, according a 2020 survey by UK-based provider SunLife Ltd.

Hiroya Shimizu, who organised his father's funeral in early 2019, remembers being shown different hearses and floral arrangements but felt he ultimately had little control over costs. "It's not like you could compare on Amazon and Yodobashi," said the 57-year-old hotel owner, referring to a popular e- site for electronics. The final bill, he said, came to around 3.5 million yen. "You just pay what you're told."

While much of the recent decline was due to people opting for small-scale ceremonies to avoid the spread of Covid, many say the change is both overdue and unlikely to be fully reversed. Shinsuke Nakamura, a manager at Kamakura Shinsho, said Japan's aging population and shift to smaller, nuclear families were also leading to smaller funerals. "Covid just accelerated a trend that was already there, with people increasingly shifting toward family-only ceremonies," he said.

Traditional ceremonies, which account for a majority of Japanese funerals — rather than rituals of Shinto, the followers of which outnumber Buddhists — are usually held over two days, with a wake held on the first evening and a formal funeral and cremation the following day. Those who attend are expected to give cash as a condolence gift, but such contributions are usually far outweighed by costs ranging from food catering to venue fees.

Religion in Japan is manifested primarily in Shinto and in Buddhism, the two main faiths, which Japanese people often practise simultaneously. According to estimates, as many as 80% of the populace follow Shinto rituals to some degree, worshipping ancestors and spirits at domestic altars and public shrines.

One expense that many find particularly opaque is the offering of cash to monks, who read sutras at ceremonies and give religious names to the dead for the afterlife. Monks are paid around 2 lakh yen on an average for such services. There's rarely an explicit price list, but a bigger offering is understood to ensure a more elaborate religious name.

Most grieving Japanese families feel under pressure to pay whatever they're told is the going rate, as haggling over funeral fees would be considered unseemly. Over half of the people, in a study published this year by the All Japan Funeral Directors Co-Operation, said that they were unsatisfied with such unclear payments. Upselling by funeral homes is also common, according to the National Consumer Affairs Centre, which fields hundreds of such complaints each year including cases of people being pressured to opt for bigger venues or fancier coffins.

Smaller funerals tend to keep such problems in check. Simple, so-called family funerals result in large cost savings and have become more popular since the pandemic. Unlike Abe's family funeral in July, held ahead of Tuesday's state funeral and attended by colleagues and other former prime ministers, most of these Japanese rituals invite only relatives that are pretty close. Some are even shortened to a one-day event. Last year, one out of every two funerals was family-only, according to Kamakura Shinsho's Nakamura. He added that such intimate gatherings also encouraged organizers to go for fewer frills.

"If it's just family, no one's going to be judging, and there's a sense that the cheapest option is fine. But if you're having neighbors, co-workers … it's embarrassing if it's done too cheaply, so you might choose a grander altar, or coffin," Nakamura said.

The fall in spending bodes poorly for the funeral industry, which by some estimates is worth 1.8 trillion yen and was briefly a target for investment funds a few years ago because of the aging Japanese population. Last year, funeral operators have also been grappling with higher energy and import costs, with some raising on cremation fees and flower arrangements as well as dry ice used to preserve bodies.

Tear Corp., one of several listed Japanese companies involved with funerals, has seen its business grow by offering lower-price ceremonies and a transparent pricing structure. But it, too, sees a fall in spending per customer.

"Current conditions in the show the number of funerals up year-on-year, but the price per funeral is continuing to decline as ceremonies are downsized and sales from meals also fall," the company said in its latest earnings report.

Some Japanese people say that family funerals could be lonely and disappointing, depriving mourners of a chance to grieve together and to connect with friends, colleagues and distant relatives of the deceased. But others who've attended small-scale ceremonies, including Shimizu, said they would likely become more common. "I've been to a small one. We just bowed in prayer, and that was it," he said. "But I think that's all we need, fundamentally."

Why the Japanese can seamlessly alter what is 'religious'

The western concept of "religion" is problematic in the Japanese context. Spirituality and worship are highly eclectic; rites and practices, often associated with well-being and worldly benefits, are of primary concern, while doctrines and beliefs garner minor attention.

Religious affiliation is an alien notion. Although the vast majority of Japanese citizens follow Shinto, only some 3% identify as Shinto in surveys, because the term is understood to imply membership of organised Shinto sects.

Some identify as "without religion", yet this does not signify rejection or apathy towards faith. The mushūkyō is a specified identity, which is used mostly to affirm regular, "normal" religiosity while rejecting affiliation with distinct movements perceived as foreign or extreme.

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