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Death and the expat

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By CB Liddell

There’s always the possibility that these could be the last words you read—perhaps you are standing too close to the edge of the platform at rush hour as the drunk behind you struggles with his balance, or possibly you’re “safely” at home in your apartment, little realizing that the Big One is about to strike after all those decades of earthquake warnings.

Wherever it happens in the world, death tends to come as a surprise. But for foreigners in Tokyo, it’s usually a bigger surprise, because most of us are in the prime of life and possibly a little more cocksure than average–something to do with the adventurous spirit that got us here in the first place.

If we do muse occasionally on our mortality, many of us see it as something that will happen in the distant future, after we’ve returned home or retired to some Thai beach. Either way, death will surely involve a plane trip first. Very few of us imagine that the Grim Reaper will bother us this side of Narita.

But the facts reveal that approximately 6,000 registered foreigners die in Japan every year. If you want a glimpse at the individual cases behind those statistics, visit the foreign section of Aoyama Cemetery, now tenderly adorned with a memorial signed by Gov Shintaro Ishihara (I guess he loves us when we’re dead). Most of the occupants of these graves hark back to the Meiji period, when the big killers were diseases like consumption, diphtheria, and possibly the occasional samurai sword.

Those people died at a time when repatriating a corpse was a tricky business, usually involving a barrel of salt and some storm-tossed months at sea. Nowadays, helpful embassies like that of the U.S. refer the recently bereaved to the services of dry-ice flying hearse companies like the bluntly named Airhearse. The company’s webpage features a rather somber visual of a shady-looking 747 taking off, presumably with the “loved one” safely stowed in the hold along with the rest of the luggage.

Whether your next of kin opts for repatriation or a local cremation, the cost is not cheap. The U.S. Embassy’s website prices “cremation and disposition of ashes in Japan” at $22,500. Having the body embalmed and sent back to the States is $15,000. The cheapest option is the $5,000 cremation and air shipment of ashes. Just don’t expect the fine powdered ashes that crematoria in the West produce. The Japanese like their remains a bit more lumpy, with plenty of bone fragments.

But none of this sheds any light on how foreigners actually die. To get a picture of that, the best way is to keep an eye on news reports. Foreigners in Japan find all sorts of interesting and frequently embarrassing ways to shuffle off the mortal coil, whether it’s a JET hit by a truck in the middle of nowhere or scientists venturing too close to the caldera of a volcano. Several years ago, there was a problem with Western investment bankers ODing in Roppongi on cocktails of cocaine and heroin.

Then there’s the innocent cultural misunderstanding which gets out of hand. A couple of years back, Scott Tucker, a burly American, barged into Bullets, a nightclub near his home in Minato-ku, and threw his weight around in an attempt to get the club to turn the noise down. In the resulting fracas, Tucker ended up in a chokehold that eventually crushed his Adam’s apple—by a slender disc jockey, no less.

Recently, Chinese interns working at Japanese companies have been at risk. Two years ago, 34 foreign interns died, while last year the toll was 27. When Jiang Xiao Dong keeled over from a heart attack in June 2008, it was revealed that the 31-year-old had worked more than 100 hours overtime the month before at a metal processing firm near Tokyo.

One of the big questions about death is what we will leave behind. When Eamon Gilleece, a young Irishman, drowned in the Hozu River near Kyoto in 2003, he left an unusual memorial—his own blog, detailing his first and last few months in Japan. Eerily, “Eamon’s World” (http://meturl.com/eamon), as it was called, is still there, giving a ghostly afterlife to one of the many thousands who came here never expecting to die.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

22 Comments
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there are many ways to die in japan. worms or dust categorize but one type of death..

during my time in tokyo, the only actual death I experienced, apart from that of my father, was having a friend unceremoniously hit by a bus. It was more than enough.

It's true that life in japan, as it is as an expat in any number of countries, is somewhat blessed by a kind of 'peter pan' syndrome, where the end is rarely in sight, and hardly relevant. the longer I stayed there, the more I was reminded of the story of the girl that finds paradise at the bottom of the ocean, enjoying all of it's pleasures for the longest time before finally resurfacing and finding that her old life had passed her by.

I loved living in japan, but am happy that (after 10 years) I was able to/lived to move on..

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Concerning the '6,000' foreigners who die every year, am I correct to presume that most of these are 'Koreans' and 'Chinese' who've never lived in any other country than Japan?

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Eamon's world sounds like an interesting read

I think for the ladies married to Japanese men, it will be easier, as they can be intered (is that the right word?) in the family's grave (perhaps the same for men married to Japanese ladies??? I dont know the rules ?) for others I think maybe best to have a will

if we return to my home country then we will have enough savings on side for a burial, as there is lots of land for that there,,,

still i hate to think of death,,,

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speaking of wills ,which aren't very common in japan, the law here is 50% to your spouse & the rest is split amongst the children. that is if you don't have a will. so, if you're not too fond of your better half, i'd suggest getting that will done asap.

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My family know all my bank passwords and will clean me out after I die so the x cannot get anything. I will go with the 5000 cremation and have my ashes tossed where I surfed all the time. Might have to tell the family to sneak that one ...

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yeah but white westerners only make up about 1% of ALL registered foreigners in japan!!!!

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I think one of the ills of living in Japan is the high blood pressure I now have from all the salt in Japanese food.Had to be taken to hospital by ambulance the other day.Some of the dangers here are much more sublime. As for the guy that drowned at Hozukyo.I saw a guy drown there myself.It was horrible.A very deceptively dangerous place to swim that keeps on claiming victims.

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I think for the ladies married to Japanese men, it will be easier, as they can be intered (is that the right word?) in the family's grave

That's the last place i want to be put.... (Yes, I know, last place, haha)....Seriously though, our regular visits to visit FIL's grave really put me off.....A hodgepodge of gravestones in varying states of decay, from moldering to brand new, all with the same surname gong back literally centuries and crawling with ghosts.... I loved the old man, but I hate going there. Plus the graveyard 'belongs' to the local temple, and the priest expects to be given wads of cash for the funeral, the internment, every year at OBon and New Year, etc., etc. I don't want my kids to feel obliged to go there on my account (or feel guilty for not going), and I certainly don't want them handing over wads of cash to a bloke in a frock with a shaved head who can't even bring himself to utter a few words of commiseration to the grieving family when he does the funeral. Grind me to powder and let me loose in the seas of Okinawa. And please, no religious claptrap, of any denomination.

On a side note, I hate this custom of giving people new names when they're dead (in exchange for another wad of cash), and not writing the real name or family relationships on the gravestone. Plays havoc with any attempts to research the family tree.

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I think it's in bad taste to call Scott Tucker "burly". It implies judgement on the appropriateness of the verdict of a case many consider to be unpunished murder.

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if I remember correctly, the law says 50% of the will goes to the government, in the form of whatever tax. at least that was the reason why two Korean girls were caught with big piles of cash in their garage after their dad died. unfortunately, I know two foreigners who died in Japan recently, both suicide. very sad stories (and yep, they were "white", to answer above posters)

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Like it or not, we are only human, and therefore we must die, sooner or later, this is very, very natural, if we did not die, imagine all the nasty zombies walking around like 500 or 600 years olds! We should not fear death, whether we are ex pats or etc..we should fear not living correctly, with justice and honor in our hearts.

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Some interesting and useful info.

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This article had a strangely jovial tone, especially considering the article references several deaths in detail. Most people find it difficult to chuckle at the death of 31-year-old from overwork.

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I think one of the ills of living in Japan is the high blood pressure I now have from all the salt in Japanese food.

WRONG! Neither the Japanese diet (well, huge servings of it could be to blame), nor the salt is to blame for your high blood pressure. That is a myth. Ask your doctor. Salt doesn't cause high blood pressure. It exacerbates existing high blood caused by obesity, arteriosclerosis, heredity, etc.

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Someone mentioned that money left in Post Office savings is, unlike J bank accounts, not liable for death duties. I wonder if that is till true?

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don't care for the writer's attitude at all, but some good info.

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I think it weird/wrong to refer to a druken home-owner's banging on about the nightly disturbance from a noisy bar next door as an "innocent cultural misunderstanding". Or a dj reacting badly out as the drunk tries to stop the music for himself.

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I wonder how many foreigners are given the fourth option not discussed in the article: a lovely oil drum filled with cement / sea burial package offered by the local Yakuza?

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man, as if I dont have enough to worry about already...thanks dude.

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I would like to be buried like goddog, in the sea where I usually surf. The problem apparently is, the $5,000 costs includes the shipment back to your home country, so that means it is impossible to be tossed into the sea here in Japan otherwise it would be cheaper. I am also an organ donator and I wonder if it is even possible to donate them here in Japan. Does anyone on here know more details?

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Foxie,

Burial at sea is available in Japan (not close to shore, though). And, you can become an organ donor in Japan. You'll have to do the research yourself. But all the info you need is on the Internet.

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I wonder how many foreigners are given the fourth option not discussed in the article: a lovely oil drum filled with cement / sea burial package offered by the local Yakuza?

Awesome! I reckon the Yaks would be far more competitive than the $5000 pricetag - whoever offers that is having a laugh!

I'd be more than happy to be fed to the sharks (If they'd eat me).

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