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Emperor spurs early end-life planning for the elderly in aging Japan

TOKYO--Japan's Emperor Akihito surprised the nation last month when palace officials announced plans for his funeral. His wishes for a relatively modest one — and the act of planning ahead — were widely seen as a good example in this rapidly aging country.

Akihito, who turns 80 on Monday, is still active, making an official visit to India in November with his wife, the 79-year-old Empress Michiko. But concerns have grown since he had heart bypass surgery nearly two years ago on top of prostate cancer earlier.

After an expert panel discussion for more than a year, the palace announced that Akihito would be cremated, and his remains placed in a mausoleum smaller than those of his predecessors, with Michiko by his side at the Imperial compound in western Tokyo. Akihito's cremation breaks a 400-year burial custom of the world's oldest monarchy, as he wishes to trim cost, space and burden on the people, officials said.

The revelation of the couple's life-end plans was well received in the world's fastest-graying nation, where 20 years from now one in three people will be senior citizens. Eroding traditions and changing demographics mean many of them lack younger relatives to look after their affairs or their graves.

“I really empathize with their feelings,” said Setsuko Imamura, a former part-time kimono-dressing instructor who turned 79 this month. “We cannot simply compare the imperial couple's situation with us commoners, but their concerns make sense.”

Imamura has been planning for her life's end for some time. A year after her husband died of cancer in 2010, she sold their house in Hamamatsu in central Japan, and moved to a retirement home in western Tokyo, near her niece. She has sorted out her finances, written a will and selected her favorite kimono for her burial, all kept in a box. She doesn't want a ceremony.

Now, she is trying to reserve a spot in a group tomb, which would cost 300,000 yen (US$2,900) per participant. That way her remains wouldn't be abandoned, and disposed of as waste. And someone, living members of the group or their relatives, would visit the tomb and lay flowers.

“My husband and I didn't have children, so we had agreed not to leave anything behind, and that's how I want to live through the end,” she said. “I don't want to trouble anyone.”

Imamura represents a growing segment of Japan's expanding elderly population, particularly women who often outlive their husbands and are likely to die alone with no one to arrange their funeral or settle their affairs.

A 2011 national survey by Ibaraki Christian University sociology professor Kenji Mori showed that only about 60 percent of Japanese had a gravesite with relatives to take care of it. The majority considered funeral ceremonies an obligation, and about 40 percent worried the arrangements would cause trouble for relatives and neighbors.

More and more Japanese in their 60s and 70s are planning for their own deaths, just like Akihito and Michiko. A majority in Mori's survey said funeral ceremonies should reflect the wishes of the dead, a new way of thinking encouraged by companies in the now-booming “end-of-life” business.

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Nichiryoku Co. employee Junko Tsuruno swipes a card through a reader to open the door of the booth of a tombstone at Daitokuin, a high-tech 5-story temple, in Tokyo on Friday, Dec. 20. Visitors can pray for up to eight of their deceased loved ones at one of about two dozen card-operated booths, each housing a tombstone with changing nameplates for each family.(AP)

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