by Rodney E.J. Chang

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Kuniku Watanabe, a recognized master craftsman, represented the fifth generation to continue the legacy of his family’s infamous business. In his small Japanese town on the outskirts of Fukushima City, during the early morning of the day of the big earthquake, tidal wave, and disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Kuniku was busy sanding down a long wooden cedar box.




This particular one is deserving of royalty, Kuniku proudly surmised.




But whom am I kidding? he thought as he smirked. These days the royals want laminated resin composites with high tech manufactured decoration, not my traditional- but now considered old fashion, handcrafted wooden boxes. Japan is changing along with the rest of the world. Everything today is mass-produced, milled and assembled by robots! Everything today, including my industry, is produced by big factories. I belong in a former century!




       Even if everybody in town and the surrounding villages knew master craftsman Watanabe made the best custom coffins, there indeed was major competition to bury the dead. International chain outlets ruled the burial market in big cities. The fancy showroom of a company’s line of shiny resin-coated coffins under dramatic lighting was as impressive as a car dealership displaying its polished new vehicles. Plus, through mass production made possible due to automation, the slick coffins were much cheaper than Kuniku’s that were crafted by hand, one coffin at a time. And Fukushima City was close enough to his town to snatch away many of the bodies of family members that for centuries were from families that had been loyal to his family business.




“But now price is more important than loyalty and loving craftsmanship,” he complained to any friend who would bother to listen, usually when they sat together in a Geisha house, drunken from too much sake wine. Many a times he went alone but sat with a geisha girl, obliged to sit and listen, even if disinterested in the drunkard’s gripe, for the yen.




       As the forty-two year-old bachelor worked, he took another drag from the cigarette that dangled from his mouth. His rice wine bottle awaited him when he was done for the day. Kuniku had a true passion for his craft, besides the booze. The expert really enjoyed the intricate woodwork required for quality coffin construction. He took pleasure in the art of inlaying natural polished stones and fragments of iridescent oyster shell as ornamentation in honor of the deceased. Such simple pleasures, plus his serious drinking and smoking, were enough to keep Kuniku satisfied with his dwindling means. The coffin builder had no choice but to make due with what he had.




       Every woman that he had courted passed on him. No woman, nor her family whom she would have to get consent from, wanted a coffin maker as a husband. Watanabe’s physical appearance did not help matters. Now he was over forty, seriously balding across the top and forehead region, and what remain sprouting was now white on black. A bulging belly carried by a small man of short stature also didn’t help him with the women. The decades of long hours laboring over detail work under poor lighting conditions led to his poor vision and bad posture. He always squinted through his thick glasses as he worked, consequently developing facial wrinkles that made him appear older than his age. Breathing in all the sawdust over the years contributed to his chronic lung congestion. The bad working environment partnered with his four-packs-a-day nicotine habit to assault his respiratory condition. The old shop needed better ventilation not just for the dust that swirled about but also for the solvent aerosols that arose in the construction of containers for the dead. The toxic low-grade fumes were clandestinely gradually fixating his lung tissue. Kuniku erroneously contributed this source of lung deterioration also to his smoking. It was getting progressively more difficult to breathe. He promised himself to cut back – again, but also – again, in the New Year. He was hopelessly hooked on his smokes as well as his booze.




Nobody else was in the shop at this time. The day started bright enough with a promising, red, rising sun. But by mid-morning, dark gray clouds blanketed the whole sky, adding a prevailing sense of gloom, even doom to village life. The cloud cover extinguished the early warmth of the sun, making the outside air frosty, even worse than the usual bone chilling weather for this time of late winter. He noticed people scurrying by on the streets.




Must be a huge storm coming this way, thought the diminutive fellow with mole-like eyes and facial expression, due to a receded chin and small pointed nose.




Earlier, to help preserve the interior’s warmth, Kuniku had shut all the windows. He worked by the light of his hanging shop lamp. What daylight that succeeded in penetrating inside was of little value in illuminating his in-progress works of art. So he considered each and every one of his completed coffins.




       I put all my love into my constructions, he introspected. So, even if others don’t appreciate it, I know I am making true works of art. Even if they are coffins. Those who are fortunate to occupy my treasures will forever be in accommodations with style as well as class. Maybe the dead can even feel the love that I put into my work; maybe this is some sort of solace for all my efforts. I add my humble respect and lovely farewell to each and every person that goes into the next world within my creations. A robot in a factory, that mindless machine that merely assembles burial boxes, cannot do that!




Kuniku felt the ground tremble. He took a moment off from his sanding and looked towards one of the wall’s windows. Its glass plane was rattling, threatening to crack at any moment. It looked dark and perilous outside, even if it was still daytime. He watched the cherry blossom tree outside his window, stripped naked of leaves and flowers, shudder violently as it was whipsawed by torrent gusts.




What an appropriate day to die, he contemplated as he grinned, a cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth. Maybe it’s a sign from nature that my business will be picking up soon. So blow as hard as you wish, my temperamental friend. We are both servants of Death.




Suddenly, deafening sirens muted the blowing winds, making them no longer audible within his workshop. The harsh shrills pierced Kuniku’s sensitive ears, accustomed to the peaceful silence that characterized his workspace.




     What could this mean? Is this more than a bad storm approaching us?” the coffin maker questioned. He went to the cooking area at a room corner and, after wiping off the sawdust that accumulated on top of it, turned on his old portable radio. A public announcement was on, blaring over every radio station. Kuniku only heard (in Japanese) “ shelter immediately, major earthquake is now…” before the radio shut down, along with all the lights in the aged building. Suddenly, it was almost as dark as night in the shop.




As he quickly made his way on the vibrating ground to fetch a flashlight from his storage wall cabinet, the floorboards abruptly shook violently, knocking Kuniku clear off his feet. Falling face first, his chin hit the wooden planks hard. The force knocked him out cold for a minute or two.




He was lying on the floor when he regained consciousness. When he came to his senses, Kuniku spotted his eyeglasses dithering on the unstable flooring, now with one lens missing. He didn’t bother putting them back on in its damaged condition. Kuniku noticed that his lower lip was starting to swell, the upper front teeth felt loose, and he could taste blood in his mouth. He touched the wounded area with his fingers. Instant sharp pain took center stage over the dull but constant throbbing sensation. He wiped away some dripping blood and spat out more that was pooling in his mouth. But Kuniku realized that he had more serious concerns to focus his attention on.




      The whole house now shuddered, trembling as if it was afraid to soon be squashed like a little cockroach by some evil force that was about to pounce upon it.




Kuniku himself started to shiver in fear as he witnessed his hanging lamp swinging wildly as if it was possessed. The light’s gyrations were accompanied by the dreadful clamor of his precious collection of raku plates crashing into smithereens on the floor. One by one, cherished tools mounted on the wall gave way to also strike the floor.




It’s the Big One, he reckoned with alarm. It’s always been just talk but now here it is! he concluded, even yet with a degree of disbelief of the reality that “this is it.”




Bouncing about on the ground, it dawned on him that,




This must be how the end of the world feels!




Almost simultaneously all the windows’ glass blew out. It was like a bomb blast, with glass shards being hurled all over the place. With survival instincts still in tact, he was quick enough to shield his face from flying razor sharp fragments. His arms and legs stung, however. He looked at his limbs and saw multiple bleeding cuts. He sacrificed some time to pick off small pieces of glass that were impaled in his exposed limbs. It hurt badly as he yanked each out, but he had no choice if he wanted to use his legs to attempt an escape from the roof that was threatening to collapse.




A  philosophical  consideration  occurred  to Kuniku; he could not help reflecting upon it.

Is this how the famous Watanabe coffin-making tradition ends? In calamity, now itself buried by a restless Mother Nature? After over four hundred years of dedication and tradition, and this is how it all ends?




Now the old workplace was really rumbling. Some of the floorboards were starting to splinter, a crack opened up at one corner of the foundation. Mud oozed in from the opening. Stenchy ground water started seeping in. Above, the roof was now violently shaking.




No more time for philosophizing! But if I can just get to my cigarettes and my sake bottle...




Kuniku’s carnal desires were cut short by a loud ripping sound from above. He looked out a window and gaped at a sheet of corrugated metal roofing as it plunged to the ground. Then, just as quickly, it was snatched by turbulent updraft, took flight like a magic carpet, then disappeared out of sight. It was all so surreal. Kuniku peered above the window and saw the tumultuous sky, exposed at the section where the roofing had been stripped away. A strong gust rushed in through the breach, flinging unsecured objects and furnishings about. Kuniku managed to dodge a small stool, then a hammer that came spiraling towards him.

库尼的烟酒欲被头上裂开的巨响打破了。他目瞪口呆地从窗户看到一块曲折的金属屋顶坠到地上。随后便被抖动的地面踢得上下翻腾,活像一张阿拉伯魔法飞毯,然后便消失在他的视野中。一切都是如此虚幻。库尼凝视着窗户的上面,透过那已经缺了一块的屋顶,他看到了喧嚣的天空,一阵强风从屋顶的漏洞吹进来,吹动不牢靠的物品和家具。 库尼躲开一个小凳子,然后又躲过一个转着圈朝他飞来的锤子。



At this point, the coffin maker feared for his very life. It was time to immediately find refuge inside, with the roof’s collapse eminent. The dwelling had no cellar.



Not a good place to escape an earthquake, he surmised. But I cannot run outside with all the dangerous debris flying about.




Even as he frantically tried to think what to do to have a chance to survive the worst, the alcoholic found himself glancing across the room at the sake bottle, now rolling back and forth on the floor, surprisingly still intact. It tempted him to risk scrambling there to retrieve it.




If only I could get one last drink, – plus a cigarette!




       But he knew he had no time to waste crawling for the bottle as now the roofing joints were failing from the vibrating forces which made them rock, rattle, and roll. He could see more exposed open sky between the increasing cracks of the quivering roof joints. His tools were rolling and bouncing all over the floor.




It came to him in a flash. And just in the nick of time.




Kuniku darted towards the closest coffin. It didn’t matter which one. They were all so sturdily built - of much better durability than any factory constructed one.




He laid himself in a mahogany coffin and closed the lid just as time ran out. A split second later, the whole roof came crashing down. It was one violent thud after another upon his sheltered space. It seemed like his coffin was under personal attack, as if some demonic force wanted to get to him.



The deafening commotion outside his coffin lasted for about ten minutes. Kuniku’s adrenaline was completely drained. He shook violently within the confines, unable to control his shocked nervous system. He thought about how badly he needed that drink or a smoke.




Finally the blows upon his barrier ceased. There were the sounds of straggling objects dropping to the ground. At last, stillness was once more upon him; the ground had stopped shaking.




It was pitch black inside. Was it over? Did he survive the earthquake? Why was it now so deathly quiet?




It was becoming difficult to breathe in there. And hot from his body’s heat. He was sweating profusely. He started to feel trapped.




Kuniku hadn’t designed the coffin with ventilation for breathing. Why would he have? He built resting places for the dead, not the living.




Now that it had been quiet and still for a while, Kuniku felt assured that the danger outside had passed. The coffin maker readied himself to push up on the lid. He knew it had a tight, perfected fit. As a master craftsman he took pride in the precision work.




       Kuniku procrastinated on the attempt, fearful to test what might be his new ominous situation. But now, out of the necessity to breathe, Kuniku extended his arms in the black void until his hands touched the underside of the coffin’s lid. He spent a moment to muster up the necessary courage. The coffin maker knew how well he had crafted the lid to fit the box; and he realized it had a huge load of debris on top of it.




Kuniku held his breath, and then with a samurai yell to elicit courage and aggression, pushed up hard upon the cover.




To his horror, the lid didn’t budge! Not a fraction of an inch, not even a millimeter. He was enclosed within a constructed masterpiece that melded form and function.




He desperately tried again. No movement. There were too much fallen objects on top of the box, including splintered beams from the roof.




Repeatedly he pushed in desperation, but always to no avail. He was panting now. Oxygen as well as his energy was diminishing. His lungs ached from the exertion as well as the ever-decreasing supply of oxygen, and of course, from the already compromised tissue condition.




Kuniku pushed upwards once more, accompanied with a holler. Not this time like that of a samurai warrior, but instead with a cry for help - that nobody could hear.




Poor Kuniku knew it was hopeless to try and punch, elbow, or kick out a side. He had applied all the family secrets to build his boxes as indestructible as possible. And he even constructed them without the use of any nails!



Kuniku’s former satisfaction of knowing that his coffins would still be intact, long after his competitors’ had long fallen apart in their burial grounds, now paradoxically turned to regret.




But his terror eventually gave way to pride that his box had survived everything that the mighty earthquake could throw at it. That his constructed enclosure had spared him from the quake itself was some sort of moral victory. He felt satisfaction from the realization that the quake had demolished everything in his shop and the building itself, but had failed to do the same to his well-built coffin.




Slowly his remorse for his predicament gave way to acceptance of his fate. Kuniku managed a faint smile as he weakened and drifted towards unconsciousness, suffocating from the dwindling oxygen within. His final thoughts included the comprehension that he had built a worthy vessel to take him to the next life. Kuniku didn’t care anymore that he would never leave his creation. If he had known, he would have chosen, for himself, the top of the line that was in stock in the shop. The one that he was in was “plain vanilla,” without any ornamental embellishments. But there had been no time to get into one adorned with more glitz.



       Kuniku’s last thought was hallucinatory. He saw himself dead, hands folded together across his chest, perfectly at peace, lying in an opulent vessel fit for an Egyptian pharaoh, as it sailed in a sea of the Dead, ablaze by a red sunset.





A few days later, a rescue crew had arrived to search this particular village of the quake-stricken prefecture, recessed enough from the sea so that the tidal wave that inundated Fukushima did not reach it. After digging through depths of rubble, the workers discovered, and then unearthed the coffins. Amazingly, the entire inventory was not destroyed. Oh, there were nicks and dents, but all were intact.




One of the rescue workers said to another, “This is a great find. Nobody alive here at this place but these coffins are just what we need with so many bodies to bury.”




The other commented, “How well these are constructed … everything else in this place is crushed to splinters!”




Another masked volunteer nodded in agreement.




“Although so many objects fell upon these coffins too - in fact the whole house itself, the boxes are still whole.”




“So they are readily available for their urgent need for this disaster,” replied the other.




“Not many, but every one counts.”




Another rescuer added, “It is like these are God sent.”




       Then they came upon the coffin in which Kuniku was contained. The men realized it was heavier than the others when they dug to retrieve it and carry it out. So they opened it.




They were in awe when they looked inside. The rescuers found a body resting peacefully within, with its arms folded and displaying a face that, although in the process of decomposition, had a recognizable smile that suggested it was at peaceful rest.




A day later, Kuniku was buried along with many other victims of the earthquake in a mass grave. There were too many for all to have a separate coffin. The less fortunate and unidentified was merely wrapped in ceremonial cloth.




But Kuniku went down into the trench in comfort and style, entombed within his own custom work of art.