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Lavish traditional hearses grow popular overseas amid falling use in Japan

Yoshimitsu Araki, president of funeral home Araki, stands beside a Japanese "miyagata" hearse in Yachimata, Chiba Prefecture, on July 17, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomotatsu Yamaguchi)

TOKYO -- Japanese "miyagata" hearses, lavishly decorated to resemble Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, are undergoing something of a boom overseas even as they become increasingly rare sights in their home country.

Japanese funeral cars originate from "nobe-okuri," or a parade to carry a coffin on a litter to a crematorium or burial place. According to Shoichi Inoue, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, trucks were increasingly used to convey coffins as more crematoriums were built in the suburbs, among other reasons.

Around 1910, hearses made in the United States were introduced to Japan, and eventually domestically made models became popular across the country.

However, according to Inoue, "People at the time still had lingering affection for the liveliness of nobe-okuri and felt uncomfortable about modernization." For this reason, he assumes that funeral cars were lavishly decorated in the way of traditional funeral processions.

Yoshimitsu Araki, president of funeral home Araki, right, is presented with a letter of gratitude for donating a Japanese "miyagata" hearse to Mongolia, in this photo taken in the country in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Yoshimitsu Araki)

According to Tokyo-based Japan Hearse Association (JHA) and other bodies, there was a growing trend toward large funerals after World War II. Remodeling hearses with elaborate temple and shrine features, including carvings of Buddhist paradise and lotus flowers, began around 1980.

The use of miyagata expanded overseas after Yoshimitsu Araki, president of funeral home Araki based in the Chiba Prefecture city of Yachimata, east of Tokyo, visited Mongolia in 2003 as part of a trip of the Nihon Soso Bunka Gakkai, an academic society studying funeral customs. A local high priest asked Araki, "I heard that in Japan, people use (funeral) cars that look like a palace. We would really appreciate it if we could have one."

The high priest explained that a Mongolian sumo wrestler who competed in Japan told him that "there are mobile temples in Japan." Moved by the priest's ambition, Araki spent some 10 million yen to prepare one of his eight miyagata hearses for use, and gave it to a funeral home run by the Mongolian government. It was a big hit with locals, who are apparently having difficulty booking it due to the high demand.

Araki thinks the Japanese hearse "resonated with the custom in Mongolia to give a splendid funeral for the deceased."

Araki donated another miyagata to Mongolia in 2006 as the country marked the 800th anniversary of the Mongol Empire, and even one to Laos in 2015 at the request of an acquaintance. Professor Inoue says these hearses are sometimes used as mobile temples during community festivals in both countries.

Meanwhile in Japan, the number of miyagata owned by JHA member companies -- more than 2,000 at its peak in the year 2000 -- has fallen to about 400. Small, family funerals have become more common in recent years, and the majority of these use vans not covered in brassy decorations.

The declining number of traditional funeral cars is also a result of some local bodies restricting their use to convey coffins to crematoriums and funeral homes. The restriction is in response to complaints from local residents, including that the sight of miyagata coming and going creates a negative image of the community.

Funeral home Araki had operated a total of about 150 miyagata a month at one point, but only runs about five to 10 of the vehicles now. Araki stated, "If we cannot preserve the funeral custom of using miyagata in Japan, then finding ways to use them overseas is another option."

Araki says he hopes for "many Japanese to understand the purpose of miyagata, which were created based on the feeling of paying respects to the deceased."

(Japanese original by Tomotatsu Yamaguchi, Integrated Digital News Center)

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