Record Deaths in Japan Spurs New Businesses, Like Hotel for the Dead

PHOTO Record Deaths in Japan Spurs New Businesses, Like Hotels for the Dead
People Are Dying to Get Into the Liss Center, a Hotel for the Dead

The Liss Center stands three stories high, sandwiched between large warehouses on the outskirts of Tokyo. A flickering sign greets visitors in the parking lot, and the hotel's "guests" are welcomed through large metal doors. The antiseptic white walls and smell of disinfectants don't exactly scream business hotel, but owner Nyokai Matsushima affectionately calls this "a business hotel for the dead."

The Liss Center in the Shinkiba neighborhood acts as a temporary morgue. On this day there are 37 guests, or bodies. Each corpse is tagged with a bar code to avoid mix-ups. The bodies are carefully placed in one large refrigerator, and the ceilings come with antibacterial lights attached to avoid any decay.

"Guests" stay for 7,350 yen a night – roughly $88, while bereaved families can opt to seek out advice on funeral services from hotel staff. The center is the first business venture for the longtime Buddhist monk and is intended to give Japanese families a place to hold bodies while dealing with the grief and pressure of a funeral.

"I was inspired to build this hotel, about 14 years ago," Matsushima says. "I wanted to create a space where the deceased could come to rest, without any pressure from funeral companies."

The Liss Center is just the beginning for Matsushima who is joining an expanding list of businesses looking to cash in on the booming funeral industry here.

The number of deaths in Japan reached an all-time high last year, while the population dropped to record lows. Nearly a quarter of Japanese are 65 years or older, and that number is expected to climb to 40 percent by 2050 in the world's fastest aging country.

Those figures alone have prompted everyone from large retailers to former wedding providers to vie for a share in an increasingly crowded industry.

Last year, Japan's second largest retailer Aeon partnered with 400 undertakers to offer funeral services at their stores. The supermarket chain said it cut costs by at least 40 percent by buying funeral-related items in bulk. In November, convenience store Family Mart announced it was considering offering similar services.

"Nothing has been set in stone yet, but we don't think it's unusual to consider a service like this," said spokesperson Shinno Takahashi. "When somebody dies, people often don't know what to do. We want to be a place where they can come to for help."

The Booming Business of Death in Japan

John Kamm, owner of All Nations Society Funeral Directors, the first foreign-owned Japanese burial company, says so many businesses are cashing in on the funeral industry because it isn't regulated.

"Essentially anybody with a black suit can start one of these in Japan," Kamm said. "This certainly would never happen in the U.S. It's too highly regulated."

Japanese funerals have traditionally consisted of a wake at the deceased's home, a funeral at temple the next day, followed by a small family gathering at the crematorium.

But changing social customs have altered those traditions. An increasing number of families no longer have ties to local Buddhist temples. As a result, they're opting for smaller gatherings at a crematorium, free of any religious overtones.

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