Japan’s death specialists converge at inaugural Life Ending Industry Expo

December 13, 2015
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Article originally appeared on Japan Times

Specialists in the fading profession of preparing bodies for funeral and cremation gave a rare glimpse of their skills at the opening of a Tokyo exhibition focused on the business of death and dying.

Practitioners of nokan — translated as “encoffinment” — took part in what organizers said was Japan’s first contest to demonstrate their techniques, as a pianist and a guitarist played peaceful, relaxing music.

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Over 15 minutes, the contestants demonstrated their skill on Tuesday in dressing live models who laid still on a futon.

Sayuri Takahashi knelt gracefully before a motionless female figure on the floor, gently maneuvering the arms and legs to dress her in a shirt, slacks and socks, with the light of artificial candles flickering behind.

The partially clothed model was covered with a robe to hide exposed skin, the favored way of dressing the dead to maintain modesty when family members are watching.

The competition was part of the inaugural Life Ending Industry Expo, which has attracted more than 200 companies in the business of death. The expo runs through Thursday.

The craft of the specialists, who are known as nokanshi, is declining in bigger cities but remains fairly common in rural areas.

The work overlaps somewhat with that of morticians in Western countries, though in Japan embalming is rare and wakes and funerals are still sometimes held in the family home.

It came to worldwide attention in 2009 when the film “Okuribito” (“Departures”) won the Oscar for best foreign-language film for its depiction of an out-of-work cellist who becomes a nokanshi in small-town Japan.

“We wanted the public to know more about nokanshi as there weren’t enough specialists after the 2011 disaster,” said competition organizer Koki Kimura, referring to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in which more than 15,000 people died.

A panel of three judges examined not only how well the models were dressed but also how gracefully the nokanshi completed the process.

“The kindness and politeness toward the family of the deceased combined with efficiency are key,” said Shinji Kimura, one of the judges and an adviser to the lead actor in “Okuribito.”

“We want to do our best for the final departure of the deceased,” said Kimura, who has 30 years of experience as a nokanshi. “So it should not be mechanical.”

Takahashi, the 27-year-old winner who was awarded a trophy and an undisclosed sum, said she started her job three years ago after learning about the profession following a death in her family where the body was tended to by a nokanshi.

“My relative’s face looked peaceful,” she said after the contest, adding that the Oscar-winning movie also inspired her choice.

“I’m most happy when the family of the deceased tell me they’re grateful for what I did,” she said.

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