by Rodney E.J. Chang
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.
particular one is deserving of royalty,
Kuniku proudly surmised.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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) “...seek
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
about on the ground, it dawned on him that,
must be how the end of the world feels!
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.
occurred to Kuniku; he could
not help reflecting upon it.
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?
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
more time for philosophizing! But if I can just get to my cigarettes and my sake
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.
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.
good place to escape an earthquake, he
surmised. But I cannot run outside with all the dangerous debris
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.
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.
to him in a flash. And just in the nick of time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was pitch black inside. Was it over? Did he survive the earthquake? Why was it
now so deathly quiet?
was becoming difficult to breathe in there. And hot from his body’s heat. He
was sweating profusely. He started to feel trapped.
hadn’t designed the coffin with ventilation for breathing. Why would he have?
He built resting places for the dead, not the living.
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.
held his breath, and then with a samurai yell to elicit courage and aggression,
pushed up hard upon the cover.
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
desperately tried again. No movement. There were too much fallen objects on top
of the box, including splintered beams from the roof.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
other commented, “How well these are constructed … everything else in this
place is crushed to splinters!”
masked volunteer nodded in agreement.
so many objects fell upon these coffins too - in fact the whole house itself,
the boxes are still whole.”
they are readily available for their urgent need for this disaster,” replied
many, but every one counts.”
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.
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
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.
Kuniku went down into the trench in comfort and style, entombed within his own
custom work of art.