Japanese buy American-for riding the last mile

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

March 10, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Skip Williams and Bill Stevenson are betting a bundle that they can sell a lot of Japanese on riding in an American-made vehicle -- at least for the last ride.

Mr. Williams is president of Eureka Corp., a 110-year-old Ohio company that reshapes Cadillac limousines into the Alinda Classic Funeral Coach.

Mr. Stevenson founded Stevenson International Mortuary in Tokyo a few years ago to handle the funerals of foreigners who die here. Now he says he has more and more Japanese customers who want Western-style funerals.

Together, they signed up the U.S. Embassy as a sponsor -- a standard procedure available to practically any legitimate U.S. enterprise but one that is impressive to the Japanese. Then they put swimsuits and baseball jackets on a half-dozen leggy young Japanese women and threw a three-day demonstration unlike anything ever seen here.

Wall-to-wall Alinda Classics in various colors, priced from $125,000 to $200,000, were on display. Next to each of the hearses stood a pretty model to show Japanese morticians how the doors and casket-rollers work.

Standing next to a hearse, wearing a yellow swimsuit and white jacket, "isn't a common form of work in Japan," where the discussion of things related to death tends to be taboo, says Reiko Uchiyama, one of the models.

"I didn't dare tell my friends or family I was doing this. Then the TV news cameras picked me out on opening day, and I didn't know if I should smile or look sad. Anyway, now everybody who saw TV knows I had this job."

She demonstrates features virtually unknown on hearses in the United States, choices not only of rear doors that open from the left or right, but from the bottom or the center. These hearses also offer casket-side seats to satisfy the Japanese custom of having a family member ride alongside the deceased.

"If you give the Japanese businessman the features he needs, he's only too eager to buy a Cadillac," Mr. Williams says.

He and Mr. Stevenson manage to get through a whole interview without ever saying "undertaker" or "hearse."

For centuries, abbots and monks at Buddhist temples -- Shinto ** priests in some cases -- respectfully dispatched the Japanese to their next lives without commercial assistance.

But many modern-minded Japanese want to give loved ones something more up-to-date than a ride in a plain wooden box into the traditional funerary flames. Some pay $30,000 and more for Western-style ceremonies.

One Osaka funeral parlor offers a send-off that includes a high-tech laser-light show.

It ends with the family walking behind the casket into a manufactured heaven -- a tunnel filled with dry-ice vapors turned red by a bank of floodlights.

At a final arch of blue laser light, the box opens majestically for one last good-bye.

Another mortuary, in Tokyo, can put the ceremony on a nationally available satellite television channel. That way, corporations can send off top executives without taking subordinates away from their branch-office desks for a time-wasting trip to mourn in the capital.

From an obscure handful a decade or two ago, Western-style funeral parlors have grown to more than 20,000.

That many potential Cadillac customers may not excite General Motors, and it certainly won't put much of a dent in the $40 billion-a-year U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

But for Eureka, which sells 500 hearses a year in North and South America, Europe and Africa combined, Mr. Williams thinks the changing Japanese market "could be the start of something big, something very big."

In about a year, he and Mr. Stevenson have sold 18 Alinda Classics, for well over $2 million.

Mr. Stevenson said the late Emperor Hirohito's funeral in 1989 did much to promote the trend.

The Imperial Household Agency eschewed the usual gaudy temple-shaped Japanese hearse and sent the Emperor off in what officials described as a "very dignified" American-style model built on a Nissan limousine.

But the trend was really confirmed only when a few top mobsters of Japan's "yakuza" gangs joined in. Through final rides in American-style hearses built on Cadillacs and Lincolns, they seem to seek in death a dignity they rarely find in life.

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