China is famous for towns that decided to focus on manufacturing a single product as the economy opened up in the 1990s. There are cities that make just socks, others which produce only golf accessories and one that that makes a third of the world’s violins.
One place that has been a lot more silent about its specialisation is Caoxian in the eastern province of Shandong – and that’s because its primary product is coffins.
In fact over the years Caoxian has been so adept at making exquisite Japanese-style coffins that it now supplies 90% of Japan’s funereal needs, estimates Yicai.com.
People in the region like to keep quiet about their success because outsiders are often put off by the association with death. Workers are paid a premium for handling the coffins and when looking for labour at recruitment fairs the factories say they are in involved in “craft production”.
Superstition aside, the business is a good one. Japan’s aging population means deaths outnumber births by about half a million every year. In 2018, 1.37 million Japanese died, the largest annual number since the Second World War.
Caoxian began working with a Japanese coffin maker in the early 1990s. At first the region’s many sawmills simply provided the wood for coffin production. Then local manufacturers decided to try to make some of the coffins themselves.
Their first forays into the industry weren’t very successful, according to a local businessman named Feng quoted by Yicai.com.
“We created luxurious, carved, heavy coffins according to Chinese custom,” he said. Only later did they suss out that the Japanese prefer simple, lightweight boxes, often covered in embroidered fabric.
More surprisingly Caoxian also produces coffins for pets.
“Japanese people pay great attention to the ceremony after a person, or even a pet dog or cat, dies,” Xinhua quoted a local coffin-maker as saying.
Some factory owners have been sending their children to study in Japan so that the family firm can better interact with clients in the future. Yet despite often being heirs to successful commercial enterprises, the younger generation in these family businesses can also find it harder to marry because of the superstitions surrounding death.
One local coffin maker was so frustrated by all the refusals from his daughter’s prospective suitors that he took out an advertisement waiving any need for a potential husband to provide a car or a house – two items men are often requested to bring to a marriage in today’s China.
Indeed, the father of the prospective bride went one further: he even promised to transfer to the groom the ownership of eight of his coffin factories as a dowry.
Local media is yet to report if anyone has responded positively to his slightly macabre offer.
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