Caitlin Doughty describes Japan’s death culture as looking at her own world through a looking glass. It’s similar but noticeably different. While Americans have become much more fearful around death and dead bodies in recent years, the Japanese have become more comfortable. However, it’s impossible to discuss Japan’s culture around death without addressing the elephant in the room.
Japan has some of the highest rates of suicide in the world. It’s a huge problem that has so many facets that I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on. It’s a combination of mental health stigma, history, culture, and so much more. It’s something that Japanese people are trying to deal with to this day. It’s a problem that people outside of Japanese culture often misunderstand. I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, I’m not part of the culture. Not naming any names, but certain prominent personalities have brought some more attention to Japan’s struggle with suicide rates. Places like Aokigohara forest are infamous, but unfortunately, to many outsiders, it’s a “spooky” or “haunted” place, and not a place full of real human beings that unfortunately fell victim to suicide. I know that suicide is a difficult topic, and I feel it’s appropriate to point out some resources for anyone reading this that might be in a difficult place. There’s no shame in getting help, and you are worth it. If you need a sign, here it is.
But with that said, Doughty experiences three examples of death management in Japan. First, she discusses the Ruriden columbarium in Tokyo. For reference, a columbarium is a place to store cremated remains. It’s a high-tech building on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. I’d encourage anyone curious to look at some photos of the place. I don’t feel that I can do it justice. Even the two-page illustration couldn’t quite do it justice. It’s fascinating that all of these places that Doughty visited are blends of the old and the new. They combine traditional Japanese ritual with modern efficiency and cleanliness. Essentially, Ruriden has a place to store a loved one’s ashes, and there’s a system in place that uses lights to help you find exactly which one contains the person you’re looking for. It seems odd, but it’s really a fascinating and beautiful place.
Next, is the death hotel. It’s a place for mourners to visit their loved one’s body for as long as they want between death and cremation. Doughty clearly loved the idea of a death hotel. It’s actually called Lastel (Last hotel, get it?), but really death hotel sounds a lot more fun. it’s an interesting kill-two-birds-with-one-stone solution for a country where space is a precious resource. Family members that come in from out of town can sleep in their suite at Lastel, and Doughty said that a room can accommodate about 15 people. It seems like an interesting way to hold a wake.
Finally, there’s Nichiryoku Co. and I-Can Corp. These were the aspects of Doughty’s trip that didn’t sit right with me. Nichiryoku Co. has essentially a machine that retrieves an urn and delivers it to whoever scans their card. I-Can Corp is essentially a virtual grave. Both essentially offer to take care of the grave for the family. Not just cleaning the grave itself, but leaving flowers and incense. To me, that sort of defeats the purpose of having flowers or incense, or really having a grave. But still, that’s a decision for whoever chooses to work with these companies. Overall, I think that Doughty’s view on how the Japanese deal with their dead was interesting, and I could definitely see the shift in perspective that the trip seemed to give her.