Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Japan Facing Cemetery Crisis City Graveyards Getting Crowded

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Japan Facing Cemetery Crisis City Graveyards Getting Crowded

Article excerpt

TOKYO -- Every August, Japan's cemeteries and graveyards come alive during the Festival of the Dead, a time when ancestors who have passed into the other world are believed to return for a brief visit.

But with the living crowded into just about every last nook and cranny in Tokyo, the ancient Buddhist festival is forcing many to face an uncomfortable fact: for those in need of a final resting place, the situation is, well, quite grave.

Over the next week, tens of millions of Japanese will visit their family plots for the "Obon" festival, one of the most important celebrations on the Japanese calendar. Late night outdoor dances and fairs are held, and young men and women dress up in traditional kimonos to partake in time-honored rituals: They catch goldfish and play a game in which blindfolded participants try to break a watermelon with a stick.

But there is no doubt that Obon's centerpiece -- its graveyards -- are in the throes of a serious crisis.

The main problem is space, particularly in Tokyo, where about one-fifth of Japanese live.

"Unless you plan on waiting or have a lot of money to spend, your only choice is to look for a cemetery outside Tokyo," said Masaru Fujikura, a 70-year-old retiree.

According to a recent book called Graves: What Will You Do?, the cremated remains of as many as one million Tokyoites are being kept at home by families who for various reasons are unable to make suitable arrangements.

Many are simply waiting for a plot.

Tokyo has eight city-operated graveyards, but only four of them have openings. This year, there were five applicants for each available plot, and the winners were chosen by lottery.

"It's really hard to see how we can build any more large-scale, centrally located cemeteries," said Hideo Honma, head of the city's cemetery department.

Temples, which have traditionally handled most of the burden, are running out of room as well.

A good example is Daiyoji, one of the more than 70 Buddhist temples in Tokyo's eastern cemetery district.

Daiyoji's grounds are filled with tight rows of weather-beaten gravestones that are all variations on the customary tower-like design. …

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