Living & Ending Notebook

by Leo Lewis

Originally Published in the Financial Times, November 11, 2015

As best-selling items of stationery go, the  Living & Ending Notebook is an unlikely hit. A depressing combination of Filofax, family solicitor and awkward deathbed conversation with the children, the 64-page notebook is a personal organiser for Japanese who feel their demise, however distant, is in sight. With more than 10m octogenarians, the country is not short of people reaching that conclusion.

In the Japanese way, Living & Ending is punctuated with cutesy cartoons, cheerful fonts and other devices to soften the tone of a book that helps you set out your life in preparation for its extinction. The message is coy but clear: get your affairs in order while you still have your marbles, Gran, and spare your offspring the torment of guessing your Pin numbers, where you keep your bank book, what you want on your headstone and whether you and the dog have insurance. There is even a family tree to fill in, to make it easier to work out who to disinherit.           

Despite its demoralising theme, the death notebook has sold well over half a million copies — many of them, one suspects, purchased by the intended user’s children. Kokuyo, the stationery company behind the product, says it interviewed hundreds of Japanese to get ideas. “One of the findings was that the younger generations have a strong interest in inheritance matters,” it mentions.

But the phenomenon offers a glimpse into the way that Japan is quietly going about being the fastest-ageing country in the world nearly five years after a devastating natural disaster — an event that caused the whole country to think collectively about death, chaos and “what if” questions. This is a culture naturally drawn towards order, and has fewer taboos than others about turning the task of mortality-themed administrative discipline into a diverting hobby.