The business of dying in Japan

by CarterJMRN

One thing is certain for all of us, as a rather morbid saying goes. But alas, it is true and therefore it doesn’t come as a surprise that death and the business of dying are a large industry in Japan, with customers guaranteed in one of the most aged societies in the world. 

But why should overseas marketers be interested in something like this, that is infused with tradition, incense sticks, and Buddhist temples?

What businesses can learn from the funeral industry in Japan

Because things are changing in Japan and with it how the Japanese select services and make purchasing decisions, and there is much to learn from that.

While not much has altered about how we pass on, the way rituals around it certainly have in the last few years. Two key components have influenced this: the move away from Japanese countrysides to big cities, and the advent of the internet.

Big weddings are expensive, and so are lavish funerals

No one used to question the ceremonies, procedures or costs revolving around funerals. Because, quite frankly, it does sound a bit obscene and ungrateful to start counting pennies upon grandma Noriko’s death, after everything she has done for the family during her centennial lifetime.

Funerals in Japan are expensive, and Buddhist temples charge high fees for the cremation, ceremony, blessing, rent and maintenance of the gravesite. In rural settings, this has never been questioned, as a family usually remained faithful to one temple for generations.

But recently, animosity has arisen among the younger generations why so much money should be paid for this service, as temples and head monks are seemingly awash in cash which has cast doubt on the purity of their motives and lifestyles. This might have broken the taboo to discuss money matters around funerals.

Why city slickers prefer cheaper funerals

This, paired with the fact that most people in Japan now live:

  • in a big city rather than rural settings, which has led to the Internet-famous “free houses in Japan” hype
  • Live in nuclear families or as singles
  • Do not have as big of a social circle anymore as previous generations in rural settings had

lead to a market niche for chisana funerals. Chisana, which can be translated into petite, refers to a down-scaled funeral package. These can be had from as little as 119,000 yen (about US $1,250). They still include a cremation, urn, a simple ceremony, and trimmings like flowers are either reduced or left out. The number of attendants is smaller, suiting the lonelier big city life.

The role of the internet on the funeral market

We do everything online these days, including arranging a funeral. Japan is no exception. While in the countryside, one might only have one temple and one funeral home to choose from, choices in the city can be overwhelming. And somewhat uncomfortable, trying an undertaker’s services on for size. It is a sensitive subject, and the Japanese, who prefer not to lose face in public or make others uncomfortable, therefore embraced the option to research funeral services anonymously online, from the comfort of their own home.

Here, exact prices are given, for a variety of packages, and one can get all the details conveniently, without having to face a potentially pushy sales person in a time when one is already emotionally vulnerable. The kuchikomi, online reviews, also assure the customer of the excellent and tasteful service to be provided and reassure the Japanese, traditionally weary to try a new brand or service, that they are not the only ones making the leap.

What market research can glean from funerals in Japan

While most probably rather spend their free time otherwise, surfing the website of funeral providers gives quite a bit of insight into the minds of Japanese shoppers. The design is modern, almost fresh, yet simple and tasteful enough to fit such a service. However, it is not solemn. The pages look clean and businessy, which might be equated with trustworthiness, the number 1 value the Japanese look for.

It does stand out that we see photos of sales agents on the site with blurbs, recommending certain popular packages, uncannily similar to how travel agents would advertise a preferred holiday package. Japanese websites, branding, and product design, in general, is more vivid than what Westerners prefer. What might seem cluttered to us is just the right aesthetic for Japan. A more barren site might make the potential customer feel even more forlorn than they already are. 

And why not tout a certain shiny type of coating for your coffin or a flower package on sale? Death is central to the Buddhist belief and also embodied in the concept of wabi-sabi, pertaining to transience, that penetrates Japanese culture and society.

Unmasking the real Japan

The fact that the Japanese have economized the business of dying might, in fact, show us that we need to face the certainty of death more than we want to and that they have established and kept a much more healthy and natural relationship to it. 

At CarterJMRN, we have been unmasking Japan for over 30 years, offering our clients real insights into the Japanese consumer’s life. If you want to find out more, reach out and one of our team members will be happy to give you more insights into Japan.

Photo by Luís Alvoeiro Quaresma on Unsplash

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