By TAKASHI ENDO/ Staff Writer
May 31, 2023 at 07:00 JST
The Mitamado Motomachi ossuary in Sapporo’s Higashi Ward on April 25 (Haruto Hiraoka)
An increasing number of large ossuaries are popping up in urban areas, creating trouble between users, residents and operators.
For example, a religious corporation running one such establishment in Sapporo went out of business last year, and those who kept ashes there were asked to take them elsewhere.
In Osaka, citizens filed a lawsuit out of concern for the sustainability of one ossuary. They demanded that the city revoke its permission for the facility to be established.
‘TAKE THE REMAINS ELSEWHERE’
In 2015, a resident of Sapporo purchased the rights to keep the remains of his granddaughter, who died shortly following her birth, at the Mitamado Motomachi ossuary in the municipality’s Higashi Ward for 1.2 million yen ($8,900).
“I never imagined an ossuary could be shut down for financial reasons,” said the man, 68.
With four stories, Mitamado opened in 2012. Its second and third floors were lined with locker-like urns to allow visitors to pay their respects.
Given Mitamado’s convenient location near a subway station in an urban area, the man had also planned to relocate the ashes of his parents from a graveyard in Akabira, also in Hokkaido, to the ossuary.
He also expected his own remains to be placed there rather than the current family tomb 100 kilometers from Sapporo.
However, a representative of the facility’s operator, Hakuhoji temple, abruptly told the man and other patrons that the “ossuary has been seized and sold at auction because of financial difficulties” during a meeting in October 2022.
The religious body had reportedly failed to repay more than 200 million yen in loans to a funeral service agency, resulting in its land and building being seized.
The right to use one of about 770 urns at Mitamado were sold for between 300,000 yen and 2.5 million yen.
The representative said a real estate agent had bought Mitamado in the bidding and asked customers to “take the remains elsewhere” given the uncertainty of its future operations.
Mitamado has since closed, with no entry allowed. Ashes are thought to remain in 50 or so urns, according to the Sapporo city government.
“The case in Sapporo is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Yoko Nagae, a professor of funeral culture studies at Seitoku University. “Ossuary operators are involved in excessive competition in some cities, meaning the same thing can occur in other regions.”
Cases of ossuary operators going under amid dire financial situations have been reported in Fukui Prefecture and Sendai as well, as a rapidly growing number of ossuaries are incorporated, particularly in urban areas.
Nagae said ossuaries were formerly used for the temporary storage of remains, but urban arrivals from rural areas started relying on such facilities as substitutes for cemeteries starting in around 2000.
This came as those living in urban areas had trouble frequenting traditional family tombs in their hometowns.
A survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare showed there were 9,466 ossuaries operated by religious corporations across Japan in fiscal 2021. The number rose by at least 30 percent over 20 years.
The figures for Tokyo and Osaka Prefecture were up about 1.5 and 3.5 times from those of past levels, respectively.
LAWSUIT FILED IN OSAKA
Residents living near the planned construction site of an ossuary sued the Osaka city government, insisting the municipality rescind its authorization of such a facility.
The operators of graveyards and ossuaries must seek permission from prefectural governors and municipal mayors under the law on graveyards and burials.
The state’s guidelines stipulate such operators must be local governments, religious entities, public benefit corporations and other such bodies, meaning private organizations cannot be directly involved in the business.
Funeral agencies, thus, frequently extend loans to religious corporations to set up ossuaries.
In a case brought to the Osaka District Court in 2017, the plaintiffs argued that the city “gave the green light to the plan without close examination, despite the fact that the operator lacks a good track record as a religious corporation.”
The residents pointed to the “likelihood that many remains could be left unattended following the operator’s bankruptcy.”
In similar past cases, a series of rulings had been issued to deny residents’ rights to sue local governments on the grounds that “their permission for the facilities’ operations is given simply from the viewpoint of public interest--protecting every individual resident’s rights is not the objective.”
The district court upheld this conventional decision and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument in the first trial of the case. It concluded neither the graveyards and burials law nor Osaka city’s rules on authorization criteria are aimed at protecting the interests of residents living nearby.
In the second trial, the Osaka High Court, however, considered the city’s standards that stipulate the municipality shall not grant its approval if there is a “risk of the living environment in the vicinity being significantly disrupted.”
The high court described it as “obvious that the criteria aim to protect the individual interest of residents living nearby,” acknowledging the citizens’ right to sue the city. It ordered the case be sent back to the district court with the latest ruling in mind.
Osaka city filed an appeal, and the Supreme Court discussed the case in April.
The top court’s decision released on May 9 upheld the high court’s ruling. The Osaka District Court is expected to look again at whether the ossuary can constitute any violation of citizens’ rights.
Mitsuru Noro, a professor of administrative law studies at Osaka University who is knowledgeable about issues concerning graveyards and ossuaries, said the top court’s ruling is important.
“The decision has broadened the possibility of the residents’ right to sue being admitted likewise in other cases, as some ossuary introduction plans are being called into question over their permanence and other topics,” he said.
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