What to do when someone dies in Japan

What to do when someone dies in Japan

Written by Yogendra Puranik, Councillor of Edogawa City in Tokyo, on Feb 28th, 2021

For family and friends, the death of a loved one in any circumstance causes immense feelings of loss and sorrow. Where the death occurs overseas, there can often be additional complications in organizing the funeral, repatriation, and other arrangements.

First, call the police

If the death has happened at home or outside and you are the first witness, call 110 (police) or 119 (fire brigade or ambulance) immediately and report.

If the death has happened in a hospital, the doctor will provide you with a death certificate using which you will have to carry out certain formalities with the local authority and your country’s embassy. You also need to contact a funeral or transportation company which will help you with different procedures.

Call your friends, community people

If such a situation happens to you in Japan, first please get in touch with your best friend or a community person on whom you can rely. If you are not the family of the deceased, inform the next of kin in the home country.

Local law

There is no Japanese law limiting the time in which a body must be interred, but the scarcity and expense of refrigerated storage facilities dictate that the disposition of remains be completed as quickly as possible. Many police stations have no refrigerated storage and hospital facilities are usually very limited. Next of kin of the deceased should promptly appoint a local funeral home.

Many police stations and hospitals have a list of local organizations and, in the absence of direction from next of kin, will transfer the body into the care of a local funeral home for appropriate storage. Lack of immediate access to funds to pay for transportation and cold storage could lead to the unilateral disposition of remains as a public health hazard by the local authorities. Final arrangements for disposition would normally need to be made a maximum of one week after death.

Japanese law requires that at least 24 hours pass from the time of death until cremation or embalming may begin. Embalming or cremation may take several days depending on the location of the remains and the schedule of the mortuary company and/or police station.

There are no Japanese laws, national or local, governing the exportation of human remains. A casket containing a body or human ashes is treated as an ordinary freight. Shipping companies, however, usually require that the body be placed in a metal-lined casket. We recommend that the next of kin of the deceased consult with their funeral director to determine the advisability of viewing the remains.

Japanese cremation procedures do not result in somewhat larger-sized pieces of bone. For an additional charge, bone can be processed into fine bone powder.

Autopsies

Autopsy and post mortem examinations are generally conducted only where there is evidence of violent death, there is reason to suspect foul play or the cause of death is unknown. There are three types of autopsies:

1) Judicial autopsy (for criminal investigation purpose by court order)

2) Administrative autopsy (no crimes are involved, but the cause of death is unknown)

3) Pathological autopsy or autopsy by consent (at the request of the family)

Invasive autopsies are not common in Japan when someone died of a medical or natural cause. Only when the death occurred under unusual circumstances, for example, if someone died in a hotel or the police are involved to determine whether there was foul play involved or not. In the event of suicide or accidental death, there is generally no official requirement for an autopsy as part of the police investigation. If next of kin wishes to request an autopsy (category three above) or other investigation into the cause of death they should appoint a private legal representative in Japan to make arrangements on their behalf. A funeral home may also be able to assist.

Funeral homes

Estimated costs

The cost will depend on the disposition (cremation etc) option that you choose. The costs will be lower if you perform the disposition locally. In this case, your further choices will be just a simple disposition, or small ceremony with the cremation, or a full-scale ceremony with lots of guests and serving of food, etc to them. If you decide to transport the corpse overseas, the cost will depend on the starting and endpoint of the journey, the quality of the casket, the size and condition of the remains, and other considerations such as religious ceremonies, etc. You should seek quotes directly from a funeral or transportation company. The costs listed below are estimates that are subject to change:

Simple cremation in Japan: JPY 150,000 – 300,000 depending on the location

Embalmment and return of remains to India: JPY 1,300,000 - 1,800,000. This will probably be the same for all countries.

No estimates are available for local burial in Japan as this is uncommon due to scarcity of space; cremation in Japan is the norm.

There are no permit requirements for the importation of human ashes into many countries. However, please check for any quarantine requirements. In some countries, soil container is not allowed. In some countries, you must declare the human ashes to the Agriculture Biosecurity upon arrival. It is also advisable to contact the airline or shipping company in advance as these organizations may have additional requirements.

Documents required from the local authority

In order to prepare remains, two documents must be obtained from the Japanese authorities. In many instances, a mortuary service in Japan can obtain, or assist you in obtaining these papers. These documents will have to be translated and attested for further use in your home country.

The first and most important document is the Japanese Death Certificate (Shibo Todoke Kisai Jiko Shomeisho). In order to obtain this death certificate, you will need to present both the hospital death record and the deceased’s identifying document, such as a passport. Notification of the death must be filed with the responsible municipal office within seven days.

The other required document, which can often be applied for at the same time as the Death Certificate, is the “Certificate of Permission for Burial or Cremation” (Maiso Kaso Kyokasho).

Documents required from the Embassy

The authorized representative has to visit the Indian Embassy with copies of the police report, death certificate, medical certificate (Embalming certificate), and the passport of the deceased. The Indian Embassy will attest all the documents related to the death/dispatch of the body, cancel the passport, and issue a Registration Certificate of Death for transportation of the body of the deceased to India.

My suggestion regarding the disposition

I usually suggest a local disposition (cremation) as it is economic and it helps you to come out of the things quickly, say within a week. If you wish to transport the corpse overseas, it becomes 2 to 3 weeks of an affair at a very high cost.

If you do not have any funds to take care of the cremation, you may contact the local city office for help, find NPOs who can support or you may reach out to us. We will try to do our best.

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