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Japan takes funerals into the metaverse for convenience

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
October 13, 2023

Traditional temples with urns kept in family graves are becoming a thing of the past as Japanese firms deliver easier ways for mourners to pay their respects.

A traditional Japanese cemetery in Arashiyama, Kyoto prefecture, Japan
Japan's declining population has brought an imbalance between the number of new graves and the young people willing and able to visit themImage: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Companies in Japan are looking to provide innovative new products and services to meet the demands of a market that has undergone rapid and dramatic change in the last half century.

Tradition has been replaced in many sectors by technology — and firms that are slow to embrace that evolution lose ground to their rivals.

The same rule holds true even in death care industry, where demand is rising.

There were a record 1.58 million deaths in Japan during 2022, up from 1.26 million in 2012, continuing a long-term trend as Japan's population ages and declines.

And as elsewhere, companies in the funerals and memorials business are delivering convenience for consumers.

Alpha Club Musashino specializes in event services, although its eight wedding venues and 80 funeral halls indicate the latter part of its business is becoming increasingly important.

Based in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, the company is putting the finishing touches to a digital graveyard that can be accessed by the family of the deceased at any time.

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'Too busy to pay respects'

"A lot of people do not live near their family grave site any more and are very busy, which makes it difficult for them to visit and pay their respects," said Kie Ishii, who heads the digital project's rollout. 

"People will be able to access our metaverse cemetery through their computer or mobile phone and see their avatar with other people," she told DW.

Users will be able to see photos of their deceased loved ones, deliver virtual flowers, leave messages in books of condolence and communicate with other people paying their virtual respects through a chat function on the site.

Another benefit of remembering a loved one online is that there is no need to buy a plot of land at a temple, erect a gravestone and then pay for its upkeep.

"My grandfather died three years ago and my father now takes care of the family grave, but it's in a little village in the mountains of northern Gifu Prefecture and it takes me more than three hours to drive there," said Yae Oono, a housewife who now lives in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo.

"I do want to pay my respects and we always go during the Obon season to clean the grave and leave new flowers," she added, referring to the festival period when many Japanese take their summer vacation.

The Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo Buddhist temple (R), a multi-storey charnel house, in Tokyo, Japan
Traditionally in Japan, cremated remains are placed in family tombs used over many generations and tended by the family's eldest sonsImage: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Reservations about tech over tradition

She is not, however, completely sold on the idea of falling back on technology to pay her respects instead of being there in person.

"It would be more convenient and quicker to do everything online, but that's not really the point," she said.

"It is where my grandparents' ashes are kept and where their family came from originally so I do think it is important to make an effort and keep a connection with that part of my family history. But I am not sure if my children will feel the same in the future."

Change is undoubtedly afoot in the grounds of Japan's temples, with a survey this year by Tokyo-based communications firm Planet Inc showing that 36% of Japanese no longer visit their family graves, the Yomiuri newspaper reported, with the majority saying they simply do not have time to go in person because they live so far away.

There were nearly 119,000 applications to relocate a family grave to a new site in 2021 — up 55% from 10 years previously, a government study indicated.

In the city of Takamatsu, in Shikoku, there are cemeteries where 40% of the graves have been abandoned, the Asahi daily said in an editorial, with local authorities at a loss as to how to deal with the forgotten tombstones and cremated ashes in funeral urns.

But companies are not being put off by reservations linked to a sense that the old traditions need to be preserved and protected.

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Gravestones' QR codes

Smart Senior, a telecommunications company, has developed a system whereby a gravestone has a QR code embedded in it that when accessed provides access to video clips or still images of the deceased and the family.

Tokyo's Shinkyoji Temple can trace its history back to the 1460s but has leaped into the modern day with the construction of robotic columbaria, niches inside a wall that hold funeral urns.

Mourners use an electronic key card that delivers images of their loved ones on a screen while the automated system collects the urn from its resting place and delivers it to the altar where visitors can pay their respects.

It appears likely that future generations of Japanese will have little need for physical graveyards and will be recalling their ancestors on their mobile phones and the metaverse.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea