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TOKYO (Reuters) - Jianxing An can see he is in a dying business.
The gravestone designer, who takes pride in works featuring musical instruments and heavenly gates, says years of shrinking
sales are driving him to close up shop in Japan and move back to his native China.
"It hasn't been easy running a Japanese company these 18 years and I want to keep it going," An said at his spartan office in suburban Tokyo, where the computers had already been packed up. "But the Japanese market is in decline and I've decided to shut down my business here and return home."
Japan's aging society should be a boon for Chinese craftsmen, such as An, who dominate the tombstone trade. The number of deaths each year is expected to increase by 30 percent over the next quarter century.
But more Japanese are choosing to have their ashes scattered at sea or planted under a tree, as these options are cheaper than a gravestone, which is usually the last big splurge for many people at a time of intense caution over the economy.
About 40 percent of Japanese already have a spot waiting in an ancestral grave, a survey by a tombstone industry group shows, limiting the scope for potential sales.
At the same time, a fifth or more of Japanese would consider alternative, natural burials. Price is one concern.
But for older people, another, larger concern is that with few or no descendants to visit their graves, they might end up being abandoned. Many Japanese see such visits as a key gesture of respect. Abandoned graves risk being reclaimed and destroyed.
That creates a demographic bind, say many who are involved in the traditional grave business. Although more elderly people are planning funeral arrangements, they have fewer children and grandchildren to entrust with the care of a traditional grave.
"Really what is having the biggest impact on Japan's gravestone market is the declining birth rate," said Kei Nakae, a 30-year veteran of the tombstone industry.
Nakae estimated that Japan's tombstone business had shrunk about a quarter over the past decade, to around $2 billion a year. About 80 percent of the tombstones come from China.
Taking up the slack are the likes of Tsuyoshi Saito, who 10 years ago founded Wataru, meaning "to cross over", which offers services to scatter ashes at sea for about $2,000.
"Maybe only one-tenth of people will go for natural burials, but the number is increasing," said Saito, who uses two ships to
handle 200 sea burials a year, up from 30 when he began. Tree burials appeal to those who seek a return to nature.
Loved ones can pay their respects before a flowering cherry tree, for example, rather than a tombstone. These ceremonies typically cost the equivalent of around $5,000.
That compares with an average of $16,000 for a gravestone, even though prices have fallen about 7 percent from their peak six years ago, a deflationary trend common in Japan's slow-growth economy.
But even as prices have fallen, production costs in China have more than doubled over the past five years, swelled by rising wages and tougher environmental rules, said Ting Zhang, who has exported tombstones to Japan from southeast China for the past 17 years.
A slight recovery in Japanese gravestone prices in 2013 prompted some in the industry to speculate on the impact of "Abenomics" on the trade, but the uptick faded in 2014, industry data shows.
While An is giving up on Japan, he is buying a cemetery in China in hopes of creating a garden-style graveyard "where the living and dead can interact".
"With a gravestone, children can understand what kind of man their father was in his lifetime," he said.
Additional reporting by Cheng Guo; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Clarence Fernandez