Burial in the (patrilineal) family grave and attendance to the dead/spirit by living kin have long been customary practice in Japan. Based on a genealogical system drawing on elements of Buddhism, Shinto, and ancestor worship, the deceased joins ancestors in the grave and eventually transitions into an ancestor herself. A system of belonging that accrues sacredness to the family line and depends upon descendants for tending to the dead (with visits to the grave and daily offers at the household shrine for thirty-three years), it has traditional roots going back centuries and was instituted by law during Japan’s period of modernization in the late 1800s. This practice persisted as normative throughout the twentieth century, even after it was officially dismantled by Japan’s “democratic” constitution following the war (when the grave became redefined as the resting place for the individual rather than the place to show respect to one’s ancestors).
Today, however, fewer and fewer Japanese either have, or can rely upon, families to bury them. As uncovered by my own ethnographic research on the subject since 2014 as well as the scholarship of multiple others—among them Jason Danely, Mark Michael Rowe, Chizuko Ueno, and Kenji Mori—twenty-first-century Japan is experiencing a radical shift in the sociology of death. In the face of economic decline alongside the demographics of a high aging/low birthrate population, “mass deaths” that exceed births every year, and declining rates of marriage and cohabitation, more Japanese are living and dying alone. These constitute the rising ranks of the socially solo facing the prospect of “nowhere to go” at death. Because a conventional plot in a cemetery is only accessible to those with a legal successor to guarantee grave upkeep and payment of fees, those without such ties are at risk of becoming homeless dead. Rather than joining the sacred home of one’s ancestors, the socially alone can well wind up as “disconnected souls” (muen botoke) in a municipal mass grave for the disconnected. The specter haunting such figures is wandering ghosts: hungry, fitful, unhappy.1
In the face of such unsettlement for the dead, there is much anxiety (fuan) around the issue of mortuary care. Yet death has also inspired a booming public and commercial culture these days. The new frontier in innovative design and capitalist entrepreneurship, the “ending industry” (shūkatsu) that has emerged over the last twenty years, now sports everything from ending consultants and death midwives to rocket burials, pendant urns, and automated columbaria. Targeted particularly to those falling outside or marginalized by the conventional family system, these new-age solutions bear the potential for a radical reorientation of sociality and its articulation with temporality in Japan.
At one end of this ecology, and the one I focus on here, is the tasking of the individual to prepare her own mortuary arrangements. A form of insurance to ward off the prospect of becoming a wayward soul at the end, this “ordering while still alive” (seizen seiri, which also prompts “living contracts,” seizen keiyaku) brings death into the present, and the care once given by another into the purview of/by the self. This can be undertaken with gusto by aging seniors for whom this gives THEM something to do, and a place (preparing for the grave with others like them) to which they belong. I call this “necro-animism”: a vitality engineered if not by death itself, then by preparing for it. Relying upon the individual and their ability or desire to acquire such self-technology of death management, this trend also harkens to the spirit of neoliberalism and brings the market into what had once been supplied by other forms of sociality (mainly kin but also the community and workgroup).
One alternative to the family grave rising in popularity these days are burial places that do not require a successor (and are, thus, “graves non-dependent on the succession principle”). Ending Center, for example, is one new burial ground run by an NPO and located within (though not affiliated with) a Buddhist cemetery on the edge of Tokyo. Anyone may be buried there as socially solo. Situated under beautiful cherry trees, it advertises this as a burial ground where, even if interred by oneself, the dead are never alone. Here the deceased are accompanied by the cherry trees but also by the community of other members of the Ending Center association. Invited to a host of get-togethers, workshops, and symposia while still alive, members curry relationships called “grave-friends” (haka tomo)—friendships developed with those one will be buried alongside in the future.
But the temporality as well as sociality of Ending Center converges around the activity of preparedness that involves the present, as much as the future, and the self more than, or acting as, the other. In endless activities staged by Ending Center, I would often see the same people learning about and completing various regimens of ending preparedness: everything from completing one’s will, do-not-resuscitate-orders, and legal guardianship to making arrangements for funeral, burial, memorial, cleaning up of one’s belongings, and the handling of any surviving pets. Those leading these sessions would typically acknowledge that everyone is anxious about the uncertainty of death particularly in such socially precarious times. To therefore manage these preparations ahead of time produces an affect of relief (anshin) that allows one to continue living fully in the present. And, indeed, this was the affective pulse I sensed in these settings: being purposefully busy on a mission producing relief as much as activity in the here and now. In one such workshop on “Designing My Own Funeral,” the thirty-five participants, a mix of both women and men, spent three-and-a-half hours sharing stories of different innovations they had made in funerals or burial arrangements they had been party to, and also learning how to customize coffins (theirs or others) with personal designs made from beautiful fabrics, colorful calligraphy, or cute manga characters. The key word here is doing things with the freedom to do as one individually likes (jibunrashi)—choosing one’s own deathstyle, as it were. As the head of Ending Center put it at the beginning, funerals are no longer “proof” of one’s relationship with and duty to ancestors. Rather, they are more like a wedding for and with the self.
The idea is a bit startling: a wedding, which by definition means embarking upon a relationship of intimacy with an other, is now given to a ritual of endingness staged by and for oneself. And it signals the emphasis increasingly placed on the individual to be the agent driving mortuary care these days, which requires resources of both money and will. A burial space in Ending Center, for example, costs thousands of dollars. And, while cheaper than a family plot in the ground, the price as well as engineering is out of reach for many who, if otherwise “without anyone else to depend upon” (miyori ga nai—the term given for socially solo along with “ohitori-san”—honorable single), are at risk of both dying alone and becoming a disconnected soul after that. This is the other end of Japan’s shifting death ecology today: an excess of uncared-for-dead signaled by the rise in the incidence of lonely death—those who die alone leaving bodies discovered by the smell of rot—but also of ancestral graves getting abandoned across the country due to family lines dying out or the negligence of kin no longer tending to them. The news and public media are filled with such stories.2 Abandoned graves are as much as 40 percent of all those in cemeteries in some places in the countryside today, and the phenomenon of lonely or solitary deaths is increasing.3 One-fourth of all households are now single in Japan and the likelihood that aging Japanese will be socially solo at some point is steadily on the rise. Some call the dismantling of the family system today a sociological crisis of disconnection (muen shakai). As religion scholar Kenji Mori puts this, Japan is facing a crisis of the other; there are no longer social others to care for the dead.
But there are other implications to the ebbing of reliance upon families to bury and mourn the dead these days. The closing down of this sociological network can open up others for those who were disadvantaged or excluded under the old system. Women, for example, once expected to marry and be buried in the graves of their husbands’ families (and stranded altogether from both natal and marital family plots, if divorced), can now choose to be buried otherwise. The director of Ending Center told me that 10 percent of her clients are married women who, saving up their own money, have elected to be buried here away from their husbands and mothers-in-law: what she calls “post-death divorce” (shigo rikon). And aging day laborers in the San’ya district of Tokyo who, socially marginalized and long estranged from family, would normally expect to be buried as disconnected souls in a mass municipal grave, now have the choice of entering a collective grave just for them. Supported by a nonprofit, this new-style burial plot is based on the community rather than the family.
As the family system ebbs in Japan and the demography shifts to a high-aging, more solo-dwelling population, how to handle mortuary care represents both a crisis and opportunity for Japanese. Ranging from the precarity of the lonely dead to the liveliness of preparing one’s own plans while still alive, emerging today is an ending market with deep sociological significance.
Hara, Katsufumi, Gendai muenbotoke to muenbaka [Modern Disconnected Souls and Disconnected Graves]. Tokyo: Kokusho kankōkai, . 1992.↩
Kotani, Midori. “Dare ga shinsha wo tomurai, haka wo mamoru no ka?” [“Who is Going to Bury the Dead, Who Tend to the Grave?”]. In Gendai nihon no sōso to hakasei [Japan’s Contemporary Grave and Funeral System], edited by Suzuki Iwayumi and Mori, Kenji, 115-130. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2018.↩