The digital technology helps people remember deceased loved ones

Digital technologies are starting to change the way Japanese people remember their deceased loved ones, as new innovative products and services are proliferating.

Among such products and services are lifelike figures of deceased loved ones created with 3-D printers and a posthumous video message service using smartphones and cloud computing.

The new trend in Japan comes amid the rapid aging of society. Japan will face an unprecedented “super-aged death-ridden era” in the near future.

The annual number of deaths in the country is expected to keep increasing and peak at more than 1.6 million around 2040, 300,000 more than at present.

Many Japanese traditionally visit their family graves and pray at Buddhist altars at home. But digital technologies will likely help diversify the means of reminiscing about the deceased.

“I feel as if he is still around here,” said Yoneko Kawai, an 80-year-old woman living in the Aichi Prefecture city of Toyota. Her husband Katsuhiko passed away two years ago. They had been married for more than 50 years.

Her daughter presented the devastated widow with a “memorial figure” to console her. It is an approximately 30cm-high plaster figure made based on a photograph of Katsuhiko taken when he was alive.

The memorial figure elaborately reproduces even Katsuhiko’s favorite hat and scarf, which he wore when he traveled with Yoneko. She is happy with the figure, and can always keep it handy. “Everyone says it is so lifelike,” she said.

The memorial figure was produced by Roice Entertainment using a 3-D printer. Its price is about 200,000 yen (about $1,830). The Osaka-based company has received orders for some 350 memorial figures in the last three years.

A new posthumous video message service using smartphones and cloud computing is also now in the pipeline. A loved one’s message is received through a smartphone and his or her video is stored in the cloud.

The message is delivered to the bereaved family on designated days such as the birthdays of children and other family members.

The brainchild of the new service is Atsushi Tamura, a famous comedian and half of the comedy duo London Boots Ichi-go Ni-go. He took his cue from itako, blind Shinto priestesses who are said to be able to communicate with the dead and convey their words to the living.

“Some people feel relieved to hear the voices of the deceased. I hope the new service will comfort the bereaved,” Tamura said.

He plans to launch the new service this year at a monthly fee of 500 yen. Tamura intends to name the new service Itakoto, which means past existence, by incorporating the term itako.

New products and services designed to help people keep alive their memories of their loved ones are starting to proliferate on the back of technological innovation.

An elaborate custom-made lifelike figure could cost as much as several million yen if it is made by a sculptor. But such a figure is available at an extremely low price if it is 3D-printed.

The spread of cloud computing has also dramatically boosted the volume of data individuals can store. Reproduction devices such as smartphones have also become easily available.

Digital technologies will also likely help older Japanese people engage in shukatsu activities, aimed at preparing for the end of their lives in a positive way.

Kayoko Ogura, a 51-year-old housewife living in the Chiba Prefecture city of Narita, has registered with a unique service called “sumabo.”

The sumabo, a term derived from the Japanese words for smartphone and grave, allows bereaved families to turn a favorite place into a sort of virtual tomb and pay respect to the dead there, while viewing video messages from them.

Ogura decided to leave her video message for her family through the service after she lost her old photos when her father’s family home in Miyagi Prefecture was destroyed in the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

The disaster caused massive damage and triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

“I feel relieved to have my data stored through cloud computing, rather than through physical things, just in case,” Ogura said.

In addition to technological innovation, the changing social situation will also likely contribute to the proliferation of new products and services designed to help people remember their loved ones.

More and more people are finding it difficult to secure enough space for their family altars in their condominiums and apartments and also feeling the burden of inheriting their family graves.

“Bereaved families have started paying attention to digital technologies for emotional support,” said Daisuke Uriu, who teaches at the University of Tokyo.

Digital data can be stored for a long time as it does not deteriorate easily. But some people are trying to come to terms with Japan’s religious tradition.

Etsuko Ichihara, a multimedia artist, is one such person. She has developed the functions of reproducing faces and voices through SoftBank Group’s Pepper humanoid robot.

Ichihara is aiming to commercialize the new functions by the end of this year. They are set to expire 49 days after death, because in Buddhism, a memorial service is held on the 49th day after a person’s death and the family’s mourning period officially ends.

She initially considered using artificial intelligence to develop the function of making Pepper speak like the deceased. But she eventually decided to reproduce only prerecorded phrases and gestures in order to prevent the bereaved from becoming excessively attached to the deceased.

There has been criticism online posts by people skeptical of such products and services using digital technologies, with some saying that they are “fakes.” But in Japan, many people have family altars in their homes and have a feeling of closeness to the deceased.

“It will be good if digital technologies can help people gradually adapt to life without the deceased while remembering them,” said Midori Kotani, a senior researcher at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

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