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
"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 aging 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 percent over the next quarter
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.
About 40 percent 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
percent 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.
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"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 7 percent from their peak six years
ago, a deflationary trend common in Japan's slow-growth economy.
But even as prices have fallen, production costs in China have more
than doubled over the past five years, swelled by rising wages and
tougher environmental rules, said Ting Zhang, who has exported
tombstones to Japan from southeast China for the past 17 years.
A slight recovery in Japanese gravestone prices in 2013 prompted
some in the industry to speculate on the impact of "Abenomics" on
the trade, but the uptick faded in 2014, industry data shows.
While An is giving up on Japan, he is buying a cemetery in China in
hopes of creating a garden-style graveyard "where the living and
dead can interact".
"With a gravestone, children can understand what kind of man their
father was in his lifetime," he said.
(Additional reporting by Cheng Guo; Editing by Edmund Klamann and
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