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Indoor cemeteries facing opposition from residents

With 1.3m deaths a year, Japan faces short supply of traditional graves

An indoor cemetery with LED lighting in Nagoya, Japan

TOKYO -- Buildings that store urns containing cremated ashes are growing in popularity as an alternative to traditional cemeteries in Japan, but laws are yet to be put in place to regulate where such facilities can be built, leading to protests from nearby residents.

The number of such facilities, often called "indoor cemeteries" by operators, has increased about 30% in the past decade in urban areas, where traditional cemeteries are in short supply.

Hidehiro Konno, who operates a pregnancy-care and birth clinic in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, plans to relocate the clinic because of an indoor cemetery being built in a tract adjacent to it. He tried to block the plan but failed.

It is a long-established, major clinic of its kind in the area, in operation for more than four decades and handling some 600 births a year.

The problem started with the demolition of an apartment building next to the clinic in April. Then the chief priest from a Buddhist temple in the city visited it and said the temple planned to build an indoor cemetery there. 

Konno protested and asked the priest to consider what pregnant mothers would think when they saw a place associated with death, standing right next to the clinic. But the priest said the facility is legal.

Indoor cemeteries may be what the ageing society of Japan needs, as the number of deaths increases. In 2016, total deaths exceeded 1.3 million for the first time since the end of World War II.

Grave shortage

The shortage of graves is particularly serious in city areas, boosting demand for indoor cemeteries.

Operating or constructing cemeteries, mausoleums or crematoriums requires permission from local governments. These oversee such activities based on regulations in accordance with guidelines the national government worked out in 2000.

The problem is, the guidelines were created at a time when cremated ashes were mostly entombed in graveyards. They specify criteria for setting up graveyards and buildings for the purpose, but refer little to buildings housing urns containing ashes.

Urayasu's regulations, established in 2001, contain a provision saying that anyone wishing to establish a cemetery must obtain permission from adjacent residents, in principle, but it does not include mausoleums, according to a municipal government official.

In May, the Sano clinic submitted a petition signed by 7,000 people, including patients, to the municipal government, which replied in August that it cannot stop the indoor cemetery plan.

But the Urayasu government on Sept. 15 published a draft bill to revise the regulations to establish requirements on building indoor cemeteries, aiming to bring under control plans to build such facilities.

In recent years, the number of indoor cemeteries has remained steady, totaling about 12,000 in the year ended March 2016. But their combined number for the Tokyo area, including three adjacent prefectures, and Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures increased 32% in 10 years to 1,386 in 2015.

A style of indoor cemeteries often found in city areas is a concrete building where stored urns are mechanically brought to the visitors' area, which is shared by users. Such a facility can contain several thousand urns in an area of land large enough to build a house, making them ideal for urban areas where often only small tracts of land are available.

Residents in Osaka have filed a lawsuit to block the construction of an indoor cemetery in their neighborhood.

As such facilities can be easily built in a narrow area, their construction is often planned for residential areas, creating friction with neighbors.

In the city of Osaka, 10 residents opposing a construction plan for an indoor cemetery filed a lawsuit demanding the municipal government to retract permission to operate the facility. The facility is planned to be built on a vacant lot measuring about 600 sq. meters in a residential area. According to the complaint, it would be a six-level building housing about 6,000 urns.

One of the plaintiffs, the owner of an adjacent building, said: "This was a lot where an individually owned house stood, but the entity planning to construct the facility is a religious corporation. It's not related in any way to the former owner, and it's unacceptable."

In Japan, the number of deaths is estimated to increase to 1.68 million in 2040, and the growth will further drive demand for mausoleums, making it likely that a serious government intervention will become necessary.

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