In Tokyo, the Shinkyoji Temple can trace its history back to the 1460s, when samurai lords vied for control of Japan. For five and a half centuries, the temple was a humble sanctuary of wood, with a black tile roof. After it was damaged in the 2011 earthquake, however, it was rebuilt in 2018 into a strikingly modern, seven-story facility that, in many ways, looks more like a high-end hotel or spa than a traditional religious site. The new building houses the Kuramae Ryoen funeral parlor, waiting areas inspired by Zen rock gardens, and a main hall where a statue of Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light, sits atop an ornate gilt altar.
One of the temple’s most striking features, however, is its system of robotic columbariums, which lends a bit of high-tech flair to the traditional experience of honoring one’s ancestors. “We also have a traditional outdoor graveyard here, but there are benefits to this indoor type,” said Shakuhousen, the 17th-generation chief priest at the temple, who goes by his Buddhist name.
On a recent visit, an attendant in a three-piece suit showed me into a cubicle framed by a wooden lattice and handed me a gray plastic key card. I placed the card against a sensor on the wall, heard a faint beep, and watched as the image of an elderly Japanese woman dressed in a formal kimono appeared on a video screen — a portrait of the person to whom I’d be paying my respects.
Next to the screen, a panel at the center of a white granite altar slid inward, revealing a zushi, a receptacle for the ashes of the dead. The zushi, which can hold the remains of up to eight people, was transported from a storage facility to the altar via an elaborate robotic system. It’s quite a departure from the cemeteries attached to Buddhist temples throughout Tokyo and the rest of Japan.
These kinds of computer-controlled, card-activated columbariums are becoming increasingly popular. While families still attend traditional Buddhist funerals and cremation rites, the age-old practice of interring ashes in a family grave in a hometown Buddhist cemetery is evolving, due in large part to changing demographics and the depopulation of rural areas.
With a low birth rate and little immigration, Japan’s population has been shrinking since 2010, and by 2030 one in every three people is expected to be 65 or older. As a result, there are fewer younger people to take up the time-honored task of cleaning and maintaining their ancestors’ graves. Many family graves are located in small towns far from major cities like Tokyo, making it difficult and expensive for young people to travel to pay their respects. A 2013 survey in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan, for example, found that 40% of graves were completely uncared for. In the city of Hitoyoshi, the number was 80%. Many Japanese people are therefore choosing communal rather than individual family graves, housed in facilities like the one at Kuramae Ryoen.
Digital technology is changing other Japanese customs around death as well. Where funerals were once discussed in hushed tones, companies like Yoriso, a Japanese startup, are aiming to be the Amazon of memorial services, operating glitzy online portals with photos, videos, and discount funeral plans that can be less than half the price of traditional services. These are becoming one-stop shops for grieving families who need to make arrangements quickly.
“We believe that providing a nationwide unified price and package-type funerals via the internet benefits customers who need peace of mind when making decisions,” said Shingo Shinozaki, chief operating officer at Yoriso.
Competition for a shrinking pool of customers is also pushing the funeral industry to innovate. Tokorozawa Seibu Reien, a recently established cemetery outside Tokyo, has been attracting customers with a slick 3D marketing video depicting what the cemetery will eventually look like when it is completely developed: full of green grass, red roses, and cherry trees in eternal bloom. Located on a thin strip of land between a driving range and vegetable fields in Saitama Prefecture, it’s a tranquil spot — despite the periodic thwack of golf balls. As I strolled around the headstones, an elderly couple entered the graveyard, eyeing potential plots. Only a fraction of the graves — communal, family, and individual — is occupied, but many have already been reserved by customers. They’re engraved with names and birth dates but no death dates.
The cemetery attributes this interest to the slick video it produced, and it now plans a funeral home with another marketing twist: Customers will be able to preview their own funerals and experience “being there” through virtual reality.
“The way that elderly people think about these things is changing quickly,” says Toshimitsu Tagata, president of Tokorozawa Seibu Reien. “They want to be able to preview these kinds of services. When we opened this cemetery two years ago, there was nothing here, and we had to establish customer trust through that video. We’ll have to do the same with the funeral home.”
It isn’t just older people who are interested in shukatsu, or the process of preparing for death. At a recent seminar in Tokyo, participants as young as their 30s attended talks on everything related to the end of life, including how to navigate the maze of nursing homes, hospice care, medical insurance, taxes, wills, inheritance, and funeral and interment preparations. Apps such as 100 Year Note, Eternal Message, or Ending Note allow people to upload their wills and record everything — from funeral preferences to details about family and pets — for those looking after their affairs following their deaths. Omoi Corporation, which hosted the seminar, operates a “shukatsu guide” service that includes sessions on how to sell clothes and household items on marketplace apps like the one offered by Mercari, Japan’s first tech startup unicorn. More and more, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are “decluttering” before the end of their lives, so their possessions won’t become a posthumous burden on their loved ones.
“I’ve sold things on Mercari — it’s very useful for organizing things before the end of life, and elderly people can use it if they just make a bit of effort,” says Yoshinori Sakuma, an Omoi manager who gives shukatsu seminars. “It can also help them enhance their communication with their children.”
Omoi recently launched a VR will service, in which users can record details of what they bequeath to their loved ones, as well as personal messages that can be viewed posthumously.
But even with all the ways that digital technology is changing cultural practices surrounding death, Shakuhousen, the priest at Kuramae Ryoen, believes Japan’s core traditions will remain central to how people approach the end of their lives and honor their ancestors. “Buddhist temples have played an integral role in Japanese society,” he says. A system of robotic graves won’t change that, he argues — if anything, it might help to ensure that the traditions survive. “In this era of digitization, I want temples to continue in their role as places where we can remember people from the past.”