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Lonely death in Japan: where the things of the deceased disappear

While the country is rapidly aging, more and more popular are services for cleaning houses and selling possessions to the deceased.

The cleaning company takes things out of the apartment. Here and further photo Bloomberg

Jeongja Han (Jeongja Han) has been cleaning garbage for years. She throws pencils and lighters off the table while her client, who recently became a widow, watches the process from the side. A few weeks ago, her husband died in a car accident, leaving behind dozens of things that accumulated over 30 years of living together in Tokyo. The couple had no children, so when the spouse was gone, the client turned to Khan with one goal: to get rid of all things.

In Japan, such services have become the norm. Residents of the country continue to grow old and die without having heirs. As a result – from the dead remains a huge number of things bought during the boom years. Often, relatives do not want to keep items of the deceased, seeking help from specialized companies. To make a new use for possessions. The history of the Japanese market for cleaning things of the deceased was revealed by the publication Bloomberg.

A business built on tragedies

Khan leads the cleaning company Tail Project in 2012. She specializes in the cleaning and processing of things accumulated by the deceased. The work starts at nine in the morning, and by 13:00 a small truck at the customer’s house is already full and leaves in the direction of the reseller company. From there things are stacked on the ship and transported to the new owners.

Business Tail Project can hardly be called a niche, as in Japan such projects continue to grow. This is logical – in 2017, the country was born 946 thousand people, and died 1.34 million. The current statistics indicate that the next 50 years this problem will only increase, and the chances of its correction will remain extremely small.

Japan has long, but steadily moved to such a situation since the end of World War II. The influx of investment into the country in the 1950s led to an economic boom and development of a consumption culture: the Japanese got acquainted with American capitalism and quickly got used to living according to its conditions. In the 1990s, the country started an economic crisis, forcing young people to think first of all about work and wages, and not about family and children. This resulted in the generation of elderly people without heirs, but with large belongings in the house.

“Leave it?” Khan asks, showing the widow the personal form to print left by her husband. “No, thank you,” the woman answered softly, shaking her head. For her, all such things are of symbolic value, but the workers of cleaning companies look at it as a commodity. Kitchen utensils are mostly old, so they will only go for scrap. Bathroom things like a toothbrush or soap, obviously, can not be resold. Old CDs and DVDs, books and players are often useless, unless they are in good condition and can attract collectors. For the same reason it is difficult to sell old furniture.

When Khan does not clean the dwellings of things, she is looking for another job. In search, she goes around the whole country, as if trying not to think about the death of her own mother. In those years she constantly flew from one part of the country to another, but when the tragedy happened, Khan had to organize a funeral without the help of relatives. The woman remembers how, at that time, she wanted to take care of some company.

A few years later, in 2012, Han opened the Tail Project. It was a prudent move: the country was still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which killed more than 15,000 people, and their relatives were looking for a way to clean the house of the deceased’s belongings. Get a license for such a job was not so difficult, but the Japanese had to undergo the same preparatory course for processing remains as coroners. She can not stand corpses, but sometimes she removes what remains of the dead: stains of blood and other secretions, as well as fallen hair.

Developing market

About 30% of the Japanese market of cleaning services related to death, is cleaning apartments and selling things of single dead people. Another 20% of the scope is occupied by “ghost houses” left by the owners to decay. The remaining 50% of inquiries come from the relatives of the deceased: sometimes they get together on the day of “harvesting” and tell the workers about how the deceased was.

From 2007 to 2016, more than 100,000 Japanese companies were authorized to transport garbage and used things. For one day of work, cleaning companies get from $ 2,200 to $ 3,200 thousand, but it all depends on the scale of the work.

The market of “unnecessary things” has gone further, and now many Japanese shops accept the belongings of the deceased. Some retailers do their own cleaning, and then take things to the warehouse for future resale. Even Buddhist monks penetrate the realm: relatives come to them for support, and in exchange give the priests the things of the deceased. It happens that the cleaning companies transfer the collected items to the temples, where they are burned during the ritual.

“The Japanese forgot who they are, and just bought, bought and bought,” said Rina Hamada, editor of the Japanese business publication The Reuse Business Journal. According to her, the attitude of local residents to their own things stretches from the economic boom after the Second World War. Also, a major role in the rethinking of the culture of consumption was brought about by the effects of tsunamis and earthquakes.

After that (the tragedy of 2011), we again became ourselves. People began to send their belongings to Tohoku [the Japanese region, which suffered severe devastation in 2011 – approx.  ], because those people did not have anything. People began to think: “Maybe we need to find an application for these things again.”

Rina Hamada
editor of the Japanese business magazine The Reuse Business Journal

It is unlikely that things would have enjoyed such a demand, if not for the reputation of Japanese products in the world consciousness. No other country in southeast Asia has such a marketing effect. Even when it comes to the things of dead people. Many of the collected things are sent to the Philippines, but small items can be transported to Africa. Sometimes Tail Project delivers to the continent from 10 to 100 clay pots in dollars per unit.

Hamada believes that overnight the Philippine market will get tired of Japanese goods backed up, and then entrepreneurs will have to look for another place to sell. As for the product itself, it is unlikely in the near future it will be less. Japan continues to suffer from a demographic crisis, and the chances of this fix are low. However, Khan tries not to think about it, but concentrates on his own not ordinary work.

I can not say that I’m already used to it. But gradually I get used to it.

Chonge Khan
head of the Japanese cleaning company Tail Project
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