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Grave cleaning, lawn mowing services entice hometown tax donations from urbanites in Japan

People are seen cleaning up the base of a grave in the city of Fukushima as a service offered through the hometown tax system, in this image provided by the Fukushima City Tourism and Convention Association.

As fewer people return from cities to visit family homes and neighborhoods amid the coronavirus pandemic, services offering to look after their parents and empty homes in exchange for deductible "hometown tax" contributions have become more prevalent.

    It appears that many people who are refraining from returning home during the crisis have taken an interest in the services, sparking a rise in applications at municipal governments. Some local authorities have even launched new services to meet demand.

    "Could I ask you to cut the grass one more time?" read a message received by the Silver Jinzai Center in the city of Takashima, in west Japan's Shiga Prefecture. The request, sent at the end of 2020, was from a woman in her 50s living outside the prefecture. It was her second time using the service as a hometown tax gift in six months.

    A screenshot of the lifestyle support services offered as deductible gifts in the hometown tax scheme in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, is seen in this image from intermediary website Furusato Choice. (Mainichi)

    The property she'd asked to have weeding done for is her husband's family home. Until now the couple would occasionally visit themselves, but apparently issues relating to the coronavirus have made them reluctant to travel to Takashima. Following the request, two staff members at the center quickly went to the empty home, and finished the job in about an hour. They then took pictures of the cleaned-up grass, and sent them to the woman.

    Before the coronavirus crisis even began, the Takashima City Government had listed "lifestyle support services" on its list of tax gifts provided in exchange for donations. It offers services ranging from support for parents, grandparents or other family members living in the city to property-related work like mowing people's lawns. Taxpayers can choose from five types of packages, including a two-hour job set at 10,000 yen (about $95) and a four-hour job at 20,000 yen (about $190).

    Between April and December 2020, the city government had 15 requests for the service -- four more cases than during the year before. The head of the center commented, "People can't come to Takashima because of the coronavirus, so we've had more jobs from people in big cities wanting us to mow their lawns, clean their family graves, and do other things by using tax gifts. If the pandemic persists, we might see even more applications in the future."

    The results of a search -- which totaled more than 380 -- for grave cleaning services on website Furusato Choice are seen in this screenshot. (Mainichi)

    In the city of Suzu on the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, central Japan, applications have risen for grave cleaning services that offer water-based cleaning of gravestones and grass cutting via the tax gift system (with a two-hour job set at 10,000 yen). In fiscal 2019, the city received just five requests, but as of the end of December 2020, fiscal 2020 had already seen eight people apply.

    An official at the Suzu City Government said, "I think there has been some effect from the coronavirus. The tax gifts on offer include seafood that gives people a taste of Suzu, so we'd like those who can't come back home here to make use of those, too."

    Tokyo-based Trustbank, the operator of major hometown tax service intermediary firm "Furusato Choice," has reportedly seen requests for services in which workers check on family members or visit graves rise by 1.6 times between March and November 2020 compared to the same period a year before. The amount of contributions has also doubled.

    A worker is seen praying in front of a grave after offering flowers, as part of the grave attendance service offered in the city of Fukushima, in this image provided by the Fukushima City Tourism and Convention Association.

    A representative at the firm said, "People who haven't been able to return to their hometowns during summer or New Year holidays are probably thinking of their ancestors and their families living in those places, and then using the services."

    But there are also some municipal governments that started listing services like these after infections began spreading. In December 2020, the city of Fukushima, in the northeast Japan prefecture of the same name, added a hometown tax service that checks the use of water services to monitor residents. A special piece of equipment is affixed to the meter, and the person who applies for the service is notified by email when the people in the house -- who may be relatives such as parents or grandparents -- first turn on a faucet that day.

    If the water is left running for more than two hours, or if no water is used for a set period of time, then an emergency notice is sent to the applicant. Taxpayers can apply to use the service for a year for a contribution of 774,000 yen (about $7,362), which covers the installation cost.

    Other coronavirus-aware services offered by Fukushima include carrying out full health checks for parents living in the city, cleaning graves -- including offering flowers -- and door-to-door trips to hot-spring resorts with an overnight stay for two people with meals. One of the aims of the services is to increase the number of people using hospitals and hot springs. A member of the Fukushima City Tourism and Convention Association told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We hope that these services can help ease some of the concerns among people forgoing coming to their hometown, and also improve economic activity in the area."

    (Japanese original by Kazuo Yanagisawa, Osaka Regional News Department)

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