Tansu is the traditional mobile storage cabinetry indigenous to Japan. Tansu was first recorded in the Genroku era of the Edo Period (1688–1704). The two characters, TAN and SU, appear to have initially represented objects with separate functions: the storage of food and the carrying of firewood. Since the radical for bamboo appears in each of these characters, it may be conjectured that wood was not as yet used.
During the time period in which tansu gradually became a feature of Japanese culture and daily life, 1657–1923, both hard and softwoods were used by Tansuyas (tansu craftsmen), often in practical combination for a single chest. Woods commonly used in tansu included Keyaki (elm), Kuri (chestnut), Ezo matsu (pine), Sugi (cedar), Kiri (paulownia) and Hinoki (cypress).
Many collectors focus on finding verifiably antique tansu. However, there are many workshops producing tansu in imitation of the classic antiques. Some are made quite well, even using reclaimed wood, thus allowing the new piece to have the aged looked so prized by collectors. The only sure way for verification is through careful study of original, documented pieces, scholarship and personal physical examination of any piece offered for sale.
Tansu were rarely used as stationary furniture. Consistent with Japan's minimalist aesthetic, traditional homes appeared rather empty. Tansu were not visible in the home except at certain times for specific situations. They were kept in kura (storehouses) adjacent to homes or businesses, in nando (storage rooms), in oshiire (house closet alcoves), on choba (raised platform area of a shop) and on some sengokubune (coastal ships). Mobility was obtained through the use of attached wheels, iron handles for carrying or protruding structural upper rails for lifting.
Because the Edo Period was feudal in its socio economic structure, rules concerning ownership dominated all classes from peasant to samurai. Traveling was regulated and conspicuous consumption discouraged through sumptuary laws. Tansu from this time primarily reflect the class and occupation of the owner rather than any regionally inspired originality. With the coming of the Meiji Restoration of imperial authority in 1868, and the gradual disintegration of the rigid class structure, distinctive regional characteristics could now flourish.
Types of tansu
Edo Period - Class Determined
- Choba-dansu : These chests were used by chonin (merchants) on the choba (raised platform area of a shop) to store daifukucho (account books) and related business materials. These chests come in many sizes but are usually of only one section with numerous compartments and a wide variety of interior configurations. If visible to the customer, the face wood and hardware could be of high quality to convey a favorable impression.
- Kusuri-dansu : They were apothecary chests with many small drawers to contain medicinal herbs. Because the chests/boxes often needed to be carried by itinerant salesmen, they were often constructed of light weight Kiri.
- Katana-dansu : They were boxes with several long drawers for the storage of sword blades. They were used primarily by blade polishers . Most often the case wood of choice was Kiri to help protect blades from oxidization in the humid summer months. As well, the light weight of the wood made it easier to move around between samurai customers.
- Kaidan-dansu : These step chests, often of modular construction, incorporated drawers and sliding doors. Though primarily intended as stationary adjuncts to the building architecture, they were designed to be moveable if necessary. In the Tohoku region north of Tokyo, Kaidan were sometimes positioned in farmhouses for attic access and the seasonal nurturing of silkworms under the thatched roofing. Japanese use of "structural dead space" for storage, thus leaving floor space more open is paralleled in 19th century America by the Shakers.
- Nagamochi Kuruma-dansu : These coffers on wheels are the oldest documented example of Japanese mobile cabinetry. Diaries from a trade delegation to Edo from the Dutch East India settlement on Dejima Island, Nagasaki in March 1657, refer to "big chests on four wheels" that so blocked the roads, people could not escape. What Zacharias Wagenaer and his mission by chance witnessed, has become known as the Great Fire of Meireki in which 107,000 people perished.
- Ryobiraki Kasane-dansu : These chest on chest tansu were used for storage of women's clothing. This design was designated as acceptable for merchant class women under the Kansei Reforms promulgated by the Shogun's regent Matsudaira Sadanobu in 1789. In that this style of double door, two section tansu for clothing was already popular in Edo, the limitation to only an unlacquered finish may not have been thought excessive.
Meiji Period - Regional Diversification
- Sendai Isho-dansu : They were used primarily for out of season clothing storage. The finest examples had open grain Keyaki for the face wood with Sugi for the case. They are characterized by a long top drawer with an elaborated urajyo (double action lock) or a long vertical locking bar. Chests from Sendai were respected for their finely rendered iron hardware, commissioned from former sword fitting craftsmen.
- Yonezawa Isho-dansu : Tucked remotely into the snowy mountains of the Tohoku region, the castle town of Yonezawa developed a chest on chest style for clothing storage strongly influenced by the refined lacquer finishing techniques of the Mikune area of the Japan Sea coast. The distinctive five petal cherry blossom with an arabesque of ivy engraved lock plate motif and the placement of the kobirakido (hinged door compartment) in the top chest rather than the lower, help to distinguish Yonezawa provenance.
- Kyoto Isho-dansu : This ancient city has been the perceived center of Japanese refined culture since the 9th century, when it was established as the capitol. Tansu in Kyoto style were known for a sophisticated opaque lacquering technique called tama nuri. Lacquered flowers, auspicious symbols and pleasing motifs, well rendered by craftsmen from Wajima on the Noto Peninsula, were a popular status symbol.
- Sado Shima-dansu : These chests were prized as among the finest examples of tansu craftsmanship. With funa-dansu (sea chests) as an experience base, tansuyas in the town of Ogi on Sado Island applied their skill to creating both merchant and clothing chests from the later Edo Period. Other than using thick iron hardware incorporating a four diamonds motif cut into the drawer handle back plates, ogi-dansu often evidence ships' cabinet joinery, atypical of other tansu not crafted on the Japan Sea coast. Though late as a production center, tansu makers in the town of Yahata on Sado crafted Kiri chests primarily for the trousseau clothing of merchant families, with unique hardware from the early 20th century.
- Sakai Choba-dansu : Though land-locked now for centuries, Sakai is still thought of as the “port town” for the city of Osaka. The merchant chest design associated with Sakai successfully diffused throughout Japan. Highest quality Sakai Choba are constructed of “unfinished” Hinoki for drawer and door face woods with Sugi for the case. Compartment proportionality, though intricate, is most always visually pleasing.
- Hikone Mizuya-dansu : Although mizuya (kitchen chests) both of a single section and chest on chest configuration have been crafted to fit into or adjacent to home kitchen alcoves since at least the mid Edo Period, the mizuya produced in the town of Hikone on Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture deserve particular note. Though copied from Nagoya to Kyoto, the Hikone design, as a uniting of house storage needs and traditional architecture based upon the shaku measurement as standardized in 1891 is to be praised. Using mortise and tenon construction with Hinoki for primary framing, craftsmen cleverly lightened the visual mass of the case by using kijiro nuri (translucent lacquered) finishing for the door and drawer face woods. For the hardware, copper rather than iron was preferred.
- Kuruma Choba-dansu : Chests on wheels, often constructed of the finest woods, became a status symbol for merchants throughout Japan in the Meiji period. Though clearly of Edo period origin, fear of official censure surely dampened the zeal of potential customers until the 1860s. Although when now seen in Japan in the private collections of proud merchant families, kurumas are displayed in the best tatami matted room of the house, this is not a correct representation. When used for daily business activities to hold account books and impress customers, they were kept on the choba (raised platform area of a shop) by the owner’s side, quite often chained to a sturdy post.
Literally meaning ship’s chests, this often exotic cabinetry was used by the captain or owner of small coastal trading vessels licensed by the feudal Shogunate to transport rice. These vessels would travel from the bountiful but remote countryside to the teeming cities on the kitamae route between Osaka and Hokkaido through the Inland Sea and up the Japan Sea coast. With the enforced closure of the country in 1633 and a prohibition against the construction of ships with a keel, more than two masts and a cargo capacity exceeding 89,760 liters (2550 bushels) in 1636, the Shogun inadvertently crippled the transport of rice grown on Japanese lands, resulting in shortages and even riots in some urban areas. The problem was largely alleviated through reforms of the coastal navigation infrastructure and regulations suggested by Kawamura Zuiken in 1670. Among his implemented recommendations was the designation of reliable sea transporters of government rice as goyochonin (merchants representing the interests of the shogunate). As well, he convinced the authorities to allow properly designated vessels to trade for their own account at coastal towns en route. Though most certainly an inducement to shipping traders, there was a physical constraint that stood in the way of predictable success. The ships, though impressive in construction, were usually under 90 feet in length, with a scant crew of eleven or less. Coastal townspeople were not always impressed when these mariners arrived. There is evidence that from the Kyōhō era of Edo (1716–1735), specific designs of elaborate cabinetry began to be used on the kitamae route. Well into the Meiji period, when a sengokubune (1000 koku ship) would arrive at a coastal town for trading, the crew would ceremoniously off load the captain/owner’s personal tansu to be then positioned strategically at the place where negotiations would be held, thus lending a calculated air of affluence and respectability to the visitor’s aura.
Funa-dansu evolved into three categories of design:
- Kakesuzuri : A seals and money chest with a single hinged door often covered by intricate iron plating, with multiple interior drawers or door covered compartments.
- Hangai : A clothing chest with a single drop-fit door. Often made as a set of two identical chests, designed so one could be placed on top of the other, then locked together.
- Cho-bako : A chest for accounting and writing related materials. Often rendered in many different configurations, some of which included the following features:
- Kendon-buta : A drop-fit door cut into the case, used to hide a money box.
- Kobiraki-do : A small swinging door in the lower-right corner.
- Ryobiraki-do : Double doors with half-faced hinges on the lower half of the box.
- Dezura hikidashi : One or two drawers, exposed to the exterior.
- Hiki-do : Removable double sliding doors, running the full width of the box, appearing on the top third or middle third of the box.
- Zuri-do : Removable single sliding door in the lower half of the box, in the lower-left. Typically appears with a Kobiraki-do.
Types of hardware
Although decorative to the contemporary eye, conditioned by exposure to the refined furniture traditions of China, Britain and Europe, tansu hardware remained largely functional through the Meiji Period. Because the joinery of cases was simple and thus flexible to facilitate structural integrity during movement from place to place, hardware placement at vulnerable points was consistent with the need for reliability. Until the introduction of iron plate pressing from England in the 1880s, all iron for hardware was forged. With the introduction of western technology, tansu hardware can now be easily made more decorative with creative embellishments besides being functional.
- Herikanagu : Edge hardware, lining the edges and corners of a tansu.
- Obikanagu : "Sash hardware" which spans a face of the tansu, such as the top, or the face of a cabinet door.
- Sumikanagu : Drawer or drawer-corner hardware, appearing at the corners of drawer faces. Generally these match their associated edge hardware.
- Mochiokuri : A carrying handle, generally a loop appearing on the side near the top.
- Sao-toshi : A different type of carrying loop, usually sliding, which was designed to hold a pole when used with its mate on the other side.
- Meita : Lock jamb plate
- Sashikomijo : Sliding-door lock
- Bo : Vertical locking bar
- Hikite : Drawer pull
- Zagane : An "escutcheon," or flange, surrounding the contact point of a drawer pull.
- Toshi-zagane : Back plate for a drawer pull
- Choban : Hinge
- Kasugai : Staple affixing hardware to the wood
- Omotejo : A single action lock using a split spring for activation. For unlocking only.
- Urajo : A double action lock mechanism of foreign origin dating from the 1860s.
Tansu finishes fall into two categories: dry and lacquered. For a dry finish, clay or chalk powder was rubbed into the soft wood surface (kiri, sugi or hinoki) then burnished with an Eulalia root whisk. For lacquer (Rhus verniciflua), application could be only for sealing the plain wood to enhance a natural visible grain or for the creation of a perfect opaque surface.
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- Japanese Cabinetry - the art and craft of Tansu by David Jackson and Dane Owen, Gibbs-Smith Publisher 2002
- Tansu Cabinetry - Tansu related articles by the author of Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry
- Kateigaho - Article detailing many features of Tansu
- Stanford JGuide - Crafts & Antiques section -(Many links to informational sources on Tansu and related topics)