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Cancer-stricken ex-Komatsu president holds farewell party amid 'living funeral' trend

Former Komatsu President Satoru Anzaki, who has terminal cancer, gives a news conference after his farewell party, at a hotel in Tokyo on Dec. 11, 2017. (Mainichi)

Satoru Anzaki, the 80-year-old former president of heavy equipment manufacturer Komatsu Ltd., who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, held a "meeting of gratitude" in Tokyo on Dec. 11 -- an event that gained public attention as a "living funeral."

    Anzaki had taken out a personal ad in a newspaper which announced that he had cancer and called for participation in the farewell party. "I wanted to express my feeling of thanks while I'm well," he said.

    About 1,000 people with whom Anzaki had been in contact attended the gathering, which was held privately. According to one participant, Anzaki was wheeled around tables in his wheelchair, and smiled and laughed with participants and shook their hands. A stage performance featured Awa Odori dancing, to mark his connection with Tokushima Prefecture, where he was born.

    Anzaki was president of Komatsu between 1995 and 2001, and also served as chairman and an adviser. According to an advertisement placed in the morning edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily and other publications, Anzaki was diagnosed as having inoperable terminal cancer in October this year, and turned down life-prolonging treatment to focus on quality of life.

    After the gathering came to an end, Anzaki met reporters and told them, "I'm satisfied that I was able to shake hands with the people I met during my lifetime and say thank you to them." Asked why he personally arranged the gathering, he said, "If I had asked my company, they would have made it into a ceremonial affair, regardless of my wishes. I thought, if people are going to take the trouble to come, I want them to go home happy."

    At a regular funeral in Japan, people with a connection to the deceased gather to give their final words of parting and send them off to the afterlife, which serves to ease the bereaved participants' sadness. But of course the ceremony is for the people who are left behind, and the person who has died has no active involvement. A living funeral addresses this by getting people together before the person passes away.

    It is rare for a business leader to hold a large-scale living funeral like the one staged by Anzaki. However, the actress Takiko Mizunoe, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, gained attention for holding a similar gathering at a hotel in Tokyo in 1993. Singer-songwriter Kei Ogura, 73, held a living funeral concert in September 2014.

    "I think living funerals will increase in the future," says Midori Kotani, a chief researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, Inc., who is familiar with trends in end-of-life activities. "There are quite a few living funerals among ordinary people who aren't famous. In some cases their children have disabilities, and the person tells others, 'Please look after my children after I die.' And then there are some single people who say they aren't going to have a funeral after they die, who assemble their friends for a gathering of appreciation."

    Of course, such gatherings are not yet mainstream events. "The people who are invited get bewildered," Kotani acknowledges. "If it's a person's 70th birthday celebration, they go along happily, but with living funerals, people wonder, 'Am I not supposed to laugh?' or, 'What should I say to them?' But a 70th birthday celebration is actually like a living funeral."

    Kotani stresses the positive aspects of such events, saying, "In a living funeral, new links between people are formed through one's own network, and that becomes a testimony of your life."

    One former outside director of Komatsu who participated in Anzaki's gathering stated, "It was very meaningful to meet him. Another person who attended the same university as Anzaki in a lower year, and who played golf with him stated, "He probably looked back on his life through his relations with people. People were able to interact without all the formalities."

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