For westerners making the Far East their home, the experience is as thrilling as one could imagine, albeit discombobulating at times. It may seem like the farthest place from home but Japan offers the same welcoming environment that is recognizably and characteristically Canadian. This may be due to Canadians and Japanese people sharing the same common thread of politeness as a cultural value. This distinctive attitude, which is internationally recognized in the identity of the two nations, allows people in both countries to understand each other beyond cultural differences. For Canadians coming to Japan, the experience is like finding a home away from home --one they never knew was waiting for them. A place filled with the same friendly good days (or konichiwas), as well as apologetic excuse me’s, pardon me’s or the ubiquitous Canadian ‘sorry’ (or sumimasen in Japanese).
A native hailing from the capital of Canada, Robert Hoey found himself halfway across the world in a place where the customs, traditions, and way of life seemed worlds apart from that of his own. Even more surprising to Robert, is the business he finds himself in today; becoming the recent owner of a funerary home. Robert arrived in Japan over twenty years ago in 1994 with a work visa and an offer of employment to work for a Japanese insurance firm. Since then the Ottawa native hasn’t looked back. His career eventually led him into real estate, becoming the landlord of several properties in the city of Yokohama. Apart from business, it is the country’s natural beauty steeped in tradition where old meets new that drew him in.
“For some people that come here, I find, it just clicks. For some it doesn’t, but for others it just makes sense and you don’t really look back. I just went back to Canada last May for my sister’s wedding and after the party, I felt like I missed home (Japan).”
Life in Japan is a unique experience for people that make this country their home. In addition to his businesses in Japan, Robert makes frequent trips to the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he also owns a retreat and spa. Describing a memorable experience that stood out for him, he tells us about a recent trip he made to Thailand with several of his Japanese business partners. Just before boarding they noticed something peculiar, the entire Boeing 747 was pink, decorated with the iconic Hello Kitty logo. The theme continued on the inside, from the seats to the pink cutlery to the small cherry colored dessert cakes brandishing the face of the internationally famous kitten girl, something that could only happen in Japan.
It may seem curious to find a Canadian half way across the world involved in aspects of a society that should be dealt by natives to the cultural rituals; especially one dealing with the culture of death. But for Robert, there is no distinction that makes him any different from a Japanese counterpart. In fact, the Japanese funerary industry’s exponential growth, which oversaw 1.1 million deaths last year, is mostly made up of foreign players primarily from the United States.
For Robert, the crucial element is understanding and becoming aware of the Japanese notion of Sho-Katsu (しょうかつ). The term Sho-katsu, literally means ‘fire one’ which is a term that’s been popularized as a way to demystify and take the taboo out of death.
“It is a reference to Japan itself, the sun, and humans going back to their fire origin, the life source so to speak; something that does not have to be feared. Sort of like going into the light, a warm light that takes on the metaphorical value of the sun, which is in many ways central to Japanese identification.”
As Robert tells us, talking about death used to be taboo in Japan but now, there are even funeral expos. People are encouraged to talk about death. Funeral homes, like almost everything in Japan, have their own mascots. At the expos, people are encouraged to write in detail about their lives and experiences, a sort of will/journal or memoir. An experience that is truly Japanese in its reflective and self-aware focus on peace and balance. Through this reflection you can contemplate details about your future desires at death; but it is also a way to explore your life, something that at times we seem to ignore in the West.