| Yiyuan Wang |
TOKYO (Reuters) – Jianxing An can see he is in a dying business.
The gravestone designer, who takes pride in works featuring musical instruments and heavenly gates, says years of shrinking sales are driving him to close up shop in Japan and move back to his native China.
“It hasn’t been easy running a Japanese company these 18 years and I want to keep it going,” An said at his Spartan office in suburban Tokyo, where the computers had already been packed up. “But the Japanese market is in decline and I’ve decided to shut down my business here and return home.”
Japan’s ageing society should be a boon for Chinese craftsmen, such as An, who dominate the tombstone trade. The number of deaths each year is expected to increase by 30 per cent over the next quarter century.
But more Japanese are choosing to have their ashes scattered at sea or planted under a tree, as these options are cheaper than a gravestone, which is usually the last big splurge for many people at a time of intense caution over the economy.
Jianxing An, a 50-year-old gravestone business owner and designer, walks among gravestones, which are on closing sale, at his company showroom in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo on September 10. An can see he is in a dying business – REUTERS
About 40 per cent of Japanese already have a spot waiting in an ancestral grave, a survey by a tombstone industry group shows, limiting the scope for potential sales.
At the same time, a fifth or more of Japanese would consider alternative, natural burials. Price is one concern.
But for older people, another, larger concern is that with few or no descendants to visit their graves, they might end up being abandoned. Many Japanese see such visits as a key gesture of respect. Abandoned graves risk being reclaimed and destroyed.
That creates a demographic bind, say many who are involved in the traditional grave business. Although more elderly people are planning funeral arrangements, they have fewer children and grandchildren to entrust with the care of a traditional grave.
“Really what is having the biggest impact on Japan’s gravestone market is the declining birth rate,” said Kei Nakae, a 30-year veteran of the tombstone industry.
Nakae estimated that Japan’s tombstone business had shrunk about a quarter over the past decade, to around $2 billion a year. About 80 per cent of the tombstones come from China.
Taking up the slack are the likes of Tsuyoshi Saito, who 10 years ago founded Wataru, meaning “to cross over”, which offers services to scatter ashes at sea for about $2,000.
“Maybe only one-tenth of people will go for natural burials, but the number is increasing,” said Saito, who uses two ships to handle 200 sea burials a year, up from 30 when he began.
Tree burials appeal to those who seek a return to nature. Loved ones can pay their respects before a flowering cherry tree, for example, rather than a tombstone. These ceremonies typically cost the equivalent of around $5,000.
That compares with an average of $16,000 for a gravestone, even though prices have fallen about seven per cent from their peak six years ago, a deflationary trend common in Japan’s slow-growth economy.