The funeral business in Japan is worth about 3 trillion yen a year. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security, in 2010, there will be about 1.56 million deaths in Japan. But there is a growing shortage of cemetery plots.
Traditionally, families had one cemetery plot for the whole family and the eldest son maintained it. However, now there are nuclear families, more people living in cities and more people are nonsectarian, resulting in a demand for more cemetery plots and greater diversification of gravestone design.
Bull Life Co, which was established in 1990, develops idle land and golf courses for cemetery parks. Specifically, Bull Life proposes a plan to a company or developer that will maximize the value of the cemetery park by analyzing the data from religious organizations and markets the plan as a whole package to agencies such as grave stone sellers.
Heading the company is President and CEO Mutsuo Ikeda. After graduating from Kinki University’s Department of Business and Economics, he studied business management methods under legendary McDonald’s Japan founder Den Fujita.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Ikeda at Bull Life’s head office in Marunouchi to hear more about the funeral business in Japan.
What does the name Bull Life signify?
When the stock market goes up, it is likened to a strong and powerful bull. Bull Life aims to be a company with bright future life.
What are Bull Life’s main businesses?
Our core business is land reuse management for cemeteries. Within that, we provide memorial park management services, graveyard plot and cremation arrangements.
Is this a recession-proof industry?
There is a lot of competition, so you have to differentiate. In a recession, people do not want to pay high prices for a funeral, so you need to deliver a full range of services.
What is the situation in Japan regarding cemetery space?
There is a growing shortage of cemetery space in Japan. About 54,000 cemeteries need to be rearranged and serviced. What we are seeing now is that buyers of cemetery plots are mainly in their late 50s and 60s. They want to purchase their cemetery plots while they are active so as not to impose a burden on their families.
There are two different needs. Type A is the traditional pattern. These people rely on temples where they are members and where they often go for prayer or consultation. Type B is freer and for people who don’t want to belong to religious groups. They can choose a park type of cemetery.
What is Bull Life’s approach?
Our business model has changed. Originally, we worked to rezone existing cemeteries, then sold plots directly to consumers. Today, we are selling cemetery plots to tombstone or funeral service companies.
Is rezoning complicated?
Rezoning essentially means cleaning up and creating new plots at existing cemeteries. But because there is a big shortage of cemetery space, we have to find new land, such as idle land in mountains or unprofitable golf courses that are available for acquisition, They can be cheap because of the economic downturn and are ideal to turn into cemetery parks.
Zoning laws are very strict. Previously, the central government had authority but recently, power has been delegated to prefectures and cities. They know the demand and supply better.
Is it difficult to reuse cemetery space?
In Japan, family members have perpetual usage rights. But if nobody takes care of plots or gravestones, then temples have rights to move them into mutual tombs after three years and they can resell that plot.
What happens if someone doesn’t have a plot?
If someone dies suddenly and doesn’t have a plot, the hospital makes arrangements with a funeral service company which chooses the temple and plot.
Do you have any overseas business?
We are looking to expand overseas. I have visited U.S. national cemetery associations and I learned there are a lot of contractors in that area, but not many full service providers. There are a lot of abandoned graves.
What is a typical day for you?
When I am not here doing admin work, I visit sites and meet with outside contractors. I have some overseas conference calls with potential investors.
How do you like to relax?
Traveling, driving or just getting out into the fresh air.
Have you bought your final resting place yet?
I am considering to buy a plot in Nasu which we are developing into a cemetery park right now.
For more info, visit http://www.bulllife.jp/© Japan Today