Dealing with the Dead in Japan: On Cleaning Up After the Departed
Anne Allison Considers the Post-Mortem Care Work of “Keepers”
The smell, as Yoshida Taichi admitted to me, was hard at the start. Yet opportunity is what drove him into this business of cleaning up belongings of the deceased, including residences where corpses lay among decay. Forty-four when I interviewed him in 2017, he had already built a career as a compassionate entrepreneur: a successful businessman who also considered himself an activist for the prevention of lonely death. When Yoshida was younger, though, sports had inspired his dreams.
Yoshida played baseball in college and imagined he would turn professional, but realized he wouldn’t make it by the time he graduated. He started to become a chef and worked at a restaurant, but switched to a job at a moving company with better pay. But, cringing at the trajectory modeled by his senior coworkers—working year after year to pay off house loans—he quit at the age of twenty-eight to strike out on his own.
With only ¥5,000 ($50) in his pocket and two children to feed, Yoshida borrowed a truck and started his own moving company. This became a moving and recycling business, the first in Japan. Then, using a small inheritance from his father and joining up with his uncle, the business morphed into Keepers in 2002: Japan’s first ihinseirigaisha.
The name itself is unique. Written in katakana, the syllabary for foreign words, Keepers (ki-pa-zu/キーパーズ) signals something different and new. First calling it a disposal business that gets rid of the belongings of the deceased (ihin shori), Yoshida wanted to distinguish Keepers from the traditional benriya-san whose job of carting away unwanted possessions to a junkyard harbors negative associations with death and waste.
Replacing “disposal” with the word for “order” (seiri), it became a service that tends respectfully to the “straightening up” (katazukeru) of belongings, emphasizing both the nature of the matter (that is “not treated as garbage”) and the attitude given it by the workers (who “tend to the feelings” of the bereaved and “show respect” to the deceased). For a service that still brokers the disposal of belongings, Keppers adds a labor of care that personalizes the work they do and the attitude they take toward the objects themselves. In this they are treating the matter they deal with as something other, and more, than the garbage that Wang calls the “corpse of a commodity:” objects that have lost their utility and value.
As revealed in the motto for the company—“we help in your move to heaven” (tengoku he no hikkoshi no tetsudai/天 国へのお引越しのお手伝い)—the attitude is of recognizing the person still lingering in the things being removed from a home: what Sasha Newell, in his 2014 article on hoarding, has called the “unfetish” of an object still animated by the memories, attachments, and energy of the life it once had for or with a human.
This makes the workers not only manual laborers but also, as mentioned in the company’s promotional material, “professional mourners” (puro izoku) and “substitute family members” (giji kazoku) in the process of disentangling person from belonging at the moment of death. Kimura Eiji, another owner of an ihinseiri company who started the certification process in the industry, describes this attitude as the very reason he entered the business.
Having hired a local benriya-san to cart off his father’s possessions at death, he was so shocked at the disrespect the workers accorded the things that he fired them on the spot and took over the job. Realizing what a difference it makes to act lovingly toward belongings of the deceased even in their transport to the dump—and seeing this as a need now that families, once expected to perform this role, are increasingly busy, far away, or not available at all—Kimura started his own ihinseiri company.
As Yoshida explained to me, grieving is assisted by not merely removing the bereaved’s personal belongings from their dwelling but doing so in an “orderly, respectful” fashion. (“When these belongings are given order, memories of the deceased can enter the bereaved.”) Through the ordering of things, one’s feelings get ordered (kimochi no seiri) as well.
But what Robert Desjarlais calls the poiesis of “making the unmaking” of death—the work of mortuary rituals—is also intended for the deceased, helping to detach the person still lingering in their belongings and the home inhabited on earth. This is why Keepers added, for no additional cost, the service of Buddhist memorial (kuyō), which is conducted by a Buddhist priest for a number of customers about once a month in a special room for a few special belongings that were particularly important to the deceased (dolls, photographs, a computer or cell phone). Helping to dislodge the (dead) spirit from the thing, the items then disposed of, ideally by fire, much like a cremation.
Such rites of separation conducted for inanimate objects have a long history in Japan. Going back at least to the start of the Edo period (1603), rituals of kuyō have been performed for such everyday objects as needles, scissors, and dolls with the intention of bidding them farewell, releasing any residual negative energy within, and offering gratitude for their utility to humans before being disposed of. Today, a number of temples perform kuyō memorials for discarded dolls, needles, or other personal possessions. And, as with the ihinseiri profession, there has been something of a “kuyō boom” as if the animism accorded things is getting (re)acknowledged on the brink of death—death of material objects, death of the humans to whom they once belonged.
Kuyō memorials can also be done in anticipation of death when, as is increasingly the case, those who commission the services of Keepers are doing so not for a deceased family member but for themselves ahead of time, as insurance, as it were, for the orderly management of their belongings at death. With seizen seiri (putting affairs in order while still alive), one can have one’s belongings thinned out beforehand, or readied to be done immediately after death, thereby sparing family members the responsibility.
Or, when there is no one else to handle this duty, the to-be-deceased is ensuring that they don’t leave a disorderly mess of their remaindered belongings, if not also a corpse, in their dwelling. By (pre)ordering the materiality of their remains, customers are according propriety to others and also a semblance of respect to themselves. As Yoshida puts this, “It is important to not only live like a human, but to die like one.” Rituals of humanism performed through the medium of (disposing of) things: another example of what I am calling necro-animism.
The counterexample of a human-like death is the case of Kojirō. Written for his book on solitary death, Yoshida shows the story with manga visuals to public audiences when speaking on the topic of how to avoid becoming solitary. Pulling from the “special cleanup” (tokushu seisō/特殊清掃) cases that now constitute about one-fifth of all Keepers jobs (two to three hundred of about fifteen hundred jobs per year), Yoshida shares details of the decrepitude his workers find: putrefaction from long-undiscovered bodies that seeps into surroundings and produces a mass of organic waste, penetrating the very infrastructure of a home—tatami mats, concrete floors, even walls. The decay, as well as the smell, is notoriously horrific, requiring special ozone machines, high-octane cleansing materials, and full-body protective gear for the cleanup crew.
The message Yoshida delivers, as reported in the newsletter of Yokohama, where he gave a presentation at a citizens’ forum is that “We can’t let this occur—these deaths of people who die alone recognized by nobody surrounded by what becomes possessions of the deceased. In order to prevent this, it is important for us to be people who won’t be discovered in these conditions.” Using unrecognized death as a limit case of dying badly that could happen to anyone, Yoshida then provides recommendations for restructuring one’s life to avoid leaving burdensome remainders (stranded possessions, an untended corpse) at the end.
At the Yokohama Forum, these included signing up with a company like Keepers to declutter one’s home in advance of death and computing one’s finances to save only what is needed to live until the end and to spend the rest on enjoying a full life in the here and now. This is what a woman—admitting that she could imagine becoming a candidate for lonely death herself as it can happen even “in the middle of normal life”—gave as her big takeaway from the forum. Having cleaned her house recently and realized how much in her home would be “useless” (fuyō) to anyone else, and thus a nuisance that would bother others after her death, she has decided to pare everything down and to spend down her savings in “doing the things she wants to do” (yaritai koto) in the present.
An ethos and ethics of self-management that reduces clinging to things—whether belongings, the future, or the genealogical attachments once so normative in Japan—to the end of a sociality of not burdening others and taking joy in present activity. This is the message delivered by Yoshida as a spokesperson in the ending market today about a biopolitics not of productivity but almost the opposite, addressed to aging, postproductive Japanese. And about not letting the inutility (of their belongings and themselves) reduce them to waste (like Mr. Solitary).
By all accounts, Keepers has been extremely successful. In 2016, when I interviewed him, Yoshida had twenty-five full-time employees (including nine women, all in the office), employed as many as thirty dispatch or contract workers for any one job, and had completed a total of 16,000 cases in its fourteen years of operation. It has also spurred an avalanche of other ihinseirigaisha nationwide as well as a certification system to raise professionalization in a sector that has had a number of reported scam operations.
As he told me with pride, Yoshida maintains the highest of standards with his workers—what he says justifies the relatively higher costs he charges compared to other companies. As the first of its kind, and reflecting the current lifestyle trend in decluttering (danshari, spread by such professional declutterers as Marie Kondō), Keepers and its originator have been given considerable media attention. Stories about Yoshida and the business have appeared on television and in the press, generating host of customers as well as a degree of pop culture acclaim.
A movie, Ano toki no inochi, and manga Death Sweepers, are both loosely based on Keepers. Yoshida has also published a number of books himself on topics ranging from case studies of what he has encountered as a cleanup worker to solitary death, real estate and inheritance, and details concerning funerals, inheritance, and wills.
Yoshida greeted me warmly the day I met him in his office—really a home in a residential neighborhood with an office upstairs, a big warehouse in the basement loaded with stuff removed from the residences of clients, and a room with a small Buddhist shrine for doing kuyō. All of the elements of the business abut here: a home stuffed with possessions in the state of becoming waste awaiting the Buddhist removal of spirits first. A company doing the work of making order of and for things of the dead.
To dismantle a home with precision and care is the work of those in the ihinseiri business. This much I knew after reading voluminously about this work and interviewing three different directors of ihinseirigaisha following my interview with Yoshida. But, being an anthropologist, and assuming I’d get a much better sense of what this process actually entails by visiting the worksite (genba) itself, I reached out to Yoshida to see if he might allow me to shadow a work crew.
Curious as to why a foreign scholar would want to do this, he accommodated me nonetheless. Thanks to his generosity and the heads of two different crews who handled all the arrangements, I made three on-site visits in the summers of 2017 and 2018: two at homes within Tokyo and one on the edge of Yokohama, all jobs commissioned by family members (including the third, a case of lonely death). My expectation, going into it, was that the work would be carried out efficiently in an orderly and respectful fashion—this is how these companies advertise their service, after all. But what surprised me was the impression of the work getting done almost seamlessly, as if a gentle dust buster had been programmed to silently, automatically empty the house.
As I stood there, looking on and being shown boxes getting piled up with stuff and hauled away, there was oddly little sound. Just a home dissolving as if going down a drain. Yet all this was carried out by manual laborers. I found this ordinariness of draining a home extraordinary: an activity of diligence and care to empty with order. A striking contrast to all the emptied homes (akiya) and emptied graves (akihaka) littering the country these days that stand as markers of decay and neglect.
Excerpted from Being Dead Otherwise by Anne Allison. Available from Duke University Press. Copyright © Duke University Press, 2023.