Podcast jFuneral Season 4 Episode 166 Funeral Innovations

What is funeral innovation in Japan?

On Tuesday October 17th, 2023, I’ll be a guest speaker for the Aging Tech on Clubhouse group named “Rethinking Aging Club” talking about funeral innovations in Japan.

Before speaking about anything, it’s my bad that I haven’t been updating on Podcasts lately.
My goal was to post once a week talking about the death industry and the aging society of Japan and discuss what we can do as a society to make this life a better place for all and live happily until death comes.  This is my version of “Reform of Death” and being the “Designer of Journey to End of Life”

If you are a listener of several of my podcasts, you probably know that I’m an ex-undertaker and a fullstack ex-engineer decades ago, now a consultant and a visionary of the Japanese death industry.

Last Wednesday night, I had an opportunity to join the Carter Group event on the Age Tech and I had a very wonderful time talking and listening to the guests and the speakers.

But what I realized is that non-Japanese think it’s very easy to deploy products in Japan.

I’ll have to give it to you.  That’s a fallacy, a false vision you all have, especially in the aging tech and if it’s related to anything medical in Japan.

First of all, you do need a Japanese company as a distributor and someone to deploy your “localized” product. The product packaging must be immaculate.  People will return the product even when the outside delivery box is crushed (nothing to do with the packaging of the products or the quality of the product). 
The good part is that when you sell your product, there’s no refund policy like in the US or in Europe, unless you bought it from Amazon.  Companies don’t accept unless there’s a defect or anything that’s stated in the warranty or during the “cooling off period”.
When it comes to medical products, you would need to pass the MHLW inspection and this takes aeon and  will cost you both loss of opportunity and non-business time.  So you have to be very careful of how to deploy your products when marketing.

For the Japanese to accept the product, you have to package the way Japanese will accept it, including the design of the product.

Many years ago, when Mattel introduced Barbie dolls in Japan, no one bought them.
Because Japanese girls could not reflect on the doll.  Barbie had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a big bust!  This is why Licca-chan dolls from Takara, now Takara-Tomy, sold so well in Japan.  The character was Japanese.

Mattel realized and changed the design of the product in the past to suit the Japanese market.
Now, the Japanese have no allergies toward Barbie and the caucasian, and Mattel is able to deploy the same Barbie sold in the USA and elsewhere and including many designs of Barbie and friends.

It’s basically called “the inclusiveness”.

Enough of Barbie and its history.

I want to talk about the Japanese Ending business.
Last year, there were about 1.56 Million deaths in Japan.
The death industry knew the mass death toll was coming sooner or later but not this quickly.
The MHLW expected that this number was to reach in about 2030.

During COVID crisis, funeral directors in Japan were NOT regarded as “essential workers” so we did NOT have any privileges or even respect.   We weren’t recognized much by society but after a few celebrities died from COVID and made many headlines in the news, the society realized the danger of the virus, but still, no one really understood the works of Japanese undertakers.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Japanese undertakers were resourceful and were able to get what we needed such as masks, gloves, disposable contamination suits and alcohol for disinfecting.
The major issue was the crematoriums being full, meaning people dying to get in,  and had a waiting list for about a month.  This cost the customers a lot of money for storage and dry ice.
We couldn’t put the crematorium to full operations due to having to keep the social distance and keep people from gathering.

Nowadays, the cue has been cut down to about a week and this is usual. 

People think that there are many technologies related to the Japanese funeral market but the truth is, there isn’t. It’s the hospitality and the psychological support that funeral directors give to the family. 

When it comes to a technology, the crematorium furnace controlling system probably has  the highest value.  But this is behind the scenes from everyone. 

Photo by Shayne Spencer on Pexels.com

When people try to deploy any aging tech in Japan, there is one item that is essential.
It’s called binding with hospitality.  Without “human intervention” of coaching the elderly, even in the funeral business, it goes nowhere.

People may learn from YouTube but you need people guiding them to YouTube using QR Codes and such.
Supporting localization, and listening and not just hearing your customers, especially the elderly in Japan, is crucial.

You don’t have to agree with your customers but you say “yes” and then apologize for inconveniencing them of not understanding your product.  It’s ironic. 

Just about all clients that come to discuss their loved one’s funeral have worries.
Worries are different from one another.
It’s the act of listening and understanding of what they have to say and finding a passage to their well-being and not a solution.  Technology seems to be able to find a solution to each problem but in funerals, it’s not just the technology, it’s hospitality that counts.

If undertakers aka funeral homes can make good use of AI, and understand the context of the clients, it would be much easier for one of us to read between the lines of the true meaning of their words.

With innovations such as ChatGPT, which can understand some of the context, people can make a better educated guess of how the client is feeling. But you have to understand that AI often gives you a different answer than what humans believe, or matter of fact, what you believe from your experience.
Also, there are two types of answers you receive from ChatGPT.
One is from fine tuning LLM (large language model), which makes a clone of someone like Donald Trump and speaks and writes like him.  The other is the knowledge base, that deduces the answer from the vast data.

It’s extremely difficult for non-trained people to understand human psychology, like the FBI hostage negotiator, people often make wrong judgments.
Even with ChatGPT, it can only understand what’s written (inputted) just a while ago.  It can’t understand that the person you are talking about a month ago is the same person you are talking about now in the conversation. 

The question arises, then how and what do you return your customer with the value using innovation?

In order to answer this, you need to understand what the customer values are.
There are times that you don’t want to give a direct solution since your solution or actually, the conclusion is different from your client.  Needless to say, no technology can solve death.

Then, you need to understand there are two sides to every sale.
One side is the customer and the other is the seller.
There are two kinds of people in both types of people.
Customers that accept you and don’t.
Sellers that are accepted by the customers and not.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There is a slight difference from the standing point of where you are and how you look at it.

Innovations can help alleviate such miscommunication for sure.
There are times when it’s useful using iPads and such but there are also times, using paper is better.

It matters  how much information is being digested in the client’s head.

New income funnels for funeral business can be made via pre-arranged chats but you have to know that due to SNS, it’s much harder for ordinary funeral homes to gain new business.
Funeral homes can’t appeal much using Instagrams nor even chatbots or a service such as the “VideoAsk”. 

People don’t roam around the funeral home’s homepage to see what kind of service they can receive.  They come to your homepage to find out the place of the funeral home nowadays.
Most of the prices are already determined at the call center which we call “portals” sites where funeral business brokers set up a “trap” in the search engine and the contracted funeral homes pay 30% of the contracted price.

The best method that can be done by an ordinary funeral home is to optimize the uncertain SEO.   The clients don’t look into the homepage trying to receive answers from chatbots. They want to speak with a human and get it over with and spill their grief out on someone.

So the innovation of any funeral business is optimizing the telephone call system.
My family never went on an overnight family trip anywhere since there had to be someone, my father or mother to catch a telephone call from the customers 24/7/365 but nowadays, we have reliable call centers to catch your calls.  This is the innovation of the modern funeral business in Japan, using a myriad of micro-call centers that specialize in funeral business.

The only issue here is that funeral homes need to use these specialized “funeral oriented” call centers since the first response is very crucial, where clients aren’t aware these call centers and portal sites need to know exactly how the funeral system works in Japan.

Using iPads and videos is just a superficial tool to explain the flow of their funeral.

Photo by Bruno Cantuária on Pexels.com

Proprietary good hospitality is the number one innovation that cannot be copied by other funeral homes since we all work differently and clients all have different needs.
Every funeral requires customization of a package.  No two funerals are the same unless you’re sending the deceased directly to the crematorium without any ritual or even viewing.

Thank you for listening and reading.

If you need to contact me, please fill out the form or via LINE in Japan (Asia)