Tansu, the Cabinetry Heritage of Japan / by Shibui

When one thinks of traditional Japan, many images come to mind: cherry blossoms, folding screens of gold, formidable swords, rustic tea bowls. These items reflect a profound depth of aesthetic concern and are infused with cultural meaning. There is a less well known subject of Japan’s aesthetic and craft heritage: its cabinetry.

Japanese antique cabinetry is known as tansu. Tansu is a collective term denoting a vast array of cabinet designs for a myriad of uses. These include ship’s strong boxes, families clothing storage, peddler’s chest and kitchen cupboards. Some tansu also functioned as a staircase. Tansu reflect what Japanese treasured and safeguarded, used daily and kept private. Tansu held swords, valuables, tea utensils, fine kimono, documents, foodstuffs and tools.

A confluence of factors unfolded during the 17th century. First was the growth of towns and with it an evolution in urban architecture. Second was the need for standardized lumber and the development of tools to fulfill that need. Third was the growth of cotton as a readily available clothing textile for the town’s masses.

These events occurred in an environment of peace, which was ushered in by the victories of Tokugawa forces after the Battle of Sekigahara and then with the fall of Osaka castle in 1615. Thereafter the Tokugawa family ruled the newly unified Japan for over 250 years. This time is referred to as the


http://shibui.com/chests-beddinggEdo period, named after the new capital of Edo. It was a martial society divided into four distinct classes: warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant.

Stability and predictability were outcomes of a country finally at peace, albeit ruled under strict martial law. Castle towns, port towns and cities grew. Guilds of craftsmen and merchants became more specialized, developing from lumber broker to cabinetmaker. As urban populations grew so did the demand for new and diverse products and for the storage and safekeeping of these items.

Tansu are a good example of this specialization because Tansu are the result of the efforts of three very specialized craftsmen in their production: the cabinetmaker, hardware blacksmith and lacquer finisher.

By 1600 a new saw was commonly seen called the mae biki oga or one man rip saw. Kyoto/Kansai area blacksmiths developed this saw during the final years of the Momoyama period. It effectively allowed one man to do the work of two and doubled the production of thin boards, so necessary to the production of tansu. In addition to the rip saw the smoothing plane evolved from a pushed Chinese model into a pulled version by 1615.

Finally, cotton played its own role in the history of tansu as can be seen because the majority of tansu were for clothing storage. Cotton was first used in samurai attire but quickly spread to garments for the lower classes as its cultivation spread and affordability with it. It was easier to dye and wash and was more comfortable than hemp and paper garments.

Although the military ruled the Edo period, it was in many ways, the era of the merchant and craftsman. It was the merchant and artisan that prospered from the peace allowing them to develop the real power, economic power. By the end of the Edo period the martial society represented by the samurai was indebted and fragmented and unsettled by encroachments from the west. The restoration of the Emperor Meiji ushered in an age (1868-1912) of civilian authority and class distinctions fell to economic freedoms. Tansu developed from previous cottage industries into vital regional designs produced for ever larger markets. We know many of these designs by the towns associated with them: Sendai, Ogi, Yonezawa, Sakata, Nagoya, and Mikuni to name but a few.

By the end of the Meiji period new industrial techniques and machinery had made inroads into tansu design and compulsory public education began to thwart a tradition of learning from craftsman to apprentice. A headlong rush to imitate the industrial successes of the west would seal tansu’s fate. Taisho (1912-1926) period tansu reflected popular consumption of western dress and aesthetics. Tansu design was ever more subject to economics and industrial technique. While tansu were made into the Showa era (1926-1989) the fascinating regional designs with hand-forged iron that represented tansu’s heyday faded

Tansu is historical cabinetry created with a distinctive use of wood and iron fittings, sometimes lacquered, sometimes not. They embody Japanese aesthetic ideals such as asymmetry, rusticity, and quiet elegance, even perishability. And yet tansu have lasted the ages and have crossed an ocean. They have now influenced a generation of western craftsmen.

Tansu represent a distinct albeit overlooked chapter in Japanese craft history, indeed they were the repositories of that history as well as being players in it. Storage has never received the recognition or documentation architecture has, we hope this exhibition will open some eyes to the recognition that tansu is an integral part of Japan’s craft legacy.

David Jackson

Dane Owen

The Exhibition

NC# 1 Kuruma nagamochi 

This “rolling trunk” is the oldest piece in the exhibition. Technically it is not a tansu but is tansu’s main precursor. Nagamochi were long wooden boxes with lids and those with wheels were called kuruma nagamochi. They secured all of a family’s important possessions. Wheels signified one of tansu’s main characteristics: mobility. Even large household trunks like this one could be quickly moved in case of fires or other emergency. Fires were common in wooden homes with oil and candle-based lighting. This rolling trunk is wholly made of sugi and exhibits the finger joinery that would become the standard construction method for cabinetry. This chest is inscribed “ December- an auspicious day- Enkyo 2” (1745).






NC#2 Kuruma dansu

This tansu has wheels with built-in axles similar to the adjacent rolling trunk. It is a merchant’s chest and acted as a ledger chest for account book storage and other items of daily business. It is stoutly built with mortise and tenon framing with a single kiriwood drawer. Additional interior drawers are secured by the sliding doors effectively creating a large safe below. This chest dates from the late Edo period and is from Echigo, now part of Niigata Prefecture.


幕末に越後(現 新潟県)地方で作られた小型の帳場車箪笥。商人に必要な大福帳、そろばん、果ては金銭もしまったと思われる鍵のついた引き出しが、引き戸を開けると内蔵されている。技術的には嵌め込み式のつなぎが角に見ることができ、木工好きにはたまらない一点。


NC#4 Inventory tansu

As towns prospered in the ensuing peace of the Edo period (1615-1867), the merchant class took full advantage of the opportunities. Stores opened and as businesses grew, even opened branch locations in other cities. Cabinetry was needed for the merchant’s inventory, some were built-in (perhaps by the finish carpenter on site) and others were made up of two stacking chests and capable of being moved (made by the joiner at his workshop). This division of labor and trade represents the beginning of tansu. This Kyushu merchant’s chest has distinctive kakute (square) forged iron handles and an array of drawers in graduated sizes and sugi wood throughout.




Merchants tansu


During the Edo period the merchants persevered and prospered even as they were considered the lowest citizen class. Often merchants and artisans were located in specific cho or neighborhoods away from the warrior class households. The words cho and choba were used interchangeably to describe merchant tansu. Choba refers to the raised platform where business would often be transacted, a separate and special space often defined by a small wood fence as well


Account book chests were common to such a merchant’s “office”. Merchants ledger chests are distinctive, with stout designs and asymmetrical layout of multiple locking doors and drawers. Compartments and drawers held business documents, coins, ledger books, calligraphy supplies, abacus and even tea utensils.

These tansu were practical cabinets for storage and a status symbols for the shopkeeper. They can have ornate woods and hardware as in Matsumoto chests, or quiet simple designs such as Sakai style cho-dansu.


江戸時代の商人は最下級の身分であった。商人や職人は地域も分けられ、侍の住む地域から離れた所に商人町があった。帳場簞笥とは、その名の通り商家の帳場で使われた簞笥で、大福帳(現 帳簿)はもちろん、そろばんや証文、筆と墨、金銭も保管されていた。そのため引き出しや引き戸が違うサイズでいくつもあり、それぞれに鍵前が付いている。引き戸の中にはまた鍵付きの引き出しがあり、特に大事な物を保管していた事が伺える。



NC #5 Choba-dansu

This ledger tansu is from Omi, in what is now Shiga prefecture. Omi was a prosperous town located along the Nakasendo, the second major highway of the Edo period. It does evidence design influences from Sakai and Kyoto in terms of its configuration and stout iron ring handles.

This chest is made from stained and waxed hinoki (cypress) and sugi (cedar) with hand forged iron fittings and handles.




NC #6 Cho-dansu

The chest before us is from Osaka and has a little of both elements. The rich wood grain of keyaki panels and hikite (door pulls) of the sliding doors are quite beautiful and contrast with the overall plain front of kiri wood drawers.

The lower chest was the chest for security and evidences an array of lockable drawers. The lowest compartment has three further drawers behind the sliding doors. A secret compartment is accessed through a panel, which looks like a cabinet frame member and hides two more slim drawers. The cabinet case is made from sugi. Meiji era 1868-1912.




Peddlers Boxes

Gyosho-bako or peddler’s boxes were small cabinets which itinerant tradesmen and merchants carried up and down the highways of the day. Some were carried backpack style while others were in pairs carried by a pole across the shoulders. Peddlers sold every kind of merchandise including medicines, toiletries, hardware, pipes and stationary. These tansu can be quite old and are often made of sugi (cedar) and kiri (paulownia) two of the lighter weight woods. They commonly have multiple drawers secured by a hinged door and can have a lipped display space for the merchant’s goods atop the tansu.





NC #7 Gyosho-bako

This tall peddler’s box from Omi, Shiga Prefecture was used for stationary and is made entirely of kiri wood with iron fittings. Late Edo, circa 1830-1850.


この、江戸後期に近江地方(現 滋賀県)で作られた総桐行商箪笥は、中の引き出しの見出しに美しい筆書きで、文房具を扱っていたと思われる名称が記されている。



NC #8 Gyosho bako









This smaller peddler’s chest exhibits a case made from sugi with wiped lacquer and interior drawers of kiri wood. A hinged door secures 7 drawers. It has iron fittings, which strengthened the cabinet including a full height iron strap at the rear depicting bamboo. From Hokuriku, late Edo period, early 19th century.




Kaidan dansu



Kaidan dansu, literally a cabinet that functioned as stairs- has a long and varied history dating back at least to 1700. It is a design unique to Japan and an ingenious solution to storage need and second story access. The first areas to have common second story buildings were the merchant and geisha districts of Kyoto and Osaka. Thus the first documented or illustrated kaidan dansu come from woodblock print books from the Kansai vicinity inclusive of these cities. Kaidan dansu often exhibit two stacking sections and were built for specific spaces in machiya- a home and business under one roof- where space was at a premium.





階 段簞笥の歴史は意外に古く、1700年代には既に存在していた事が多くの資料から解っている。階段としての機能とその下の空間に物を仕舞うという機能を満 たした、大変賢い、日本ならではのデザインである。階段簞笥発祥の地は商人の町大阪と、町家のある京都からだと思われる。浮世絵版画の中で描写されている 階段簞笥で、殆ど全て関西地域の町家か商人の風景の中に出てきている。浮世絵版画は箪笥を研究する上での貴重な資料である。



NC#3 Kaidan dansu

Kaidan dansu or literally stair-chests are a fascinating resolution to the dual needs of second story access and storage. They were indeed used as stairs, as well as storage for lamps, textiles and other household goods. Kaidan dansu developed from ladder-cabinetry hybrids. Early step-chests were built-in and called hako kaidan. They evolved into freestanding cabinetry.This stout example of Kaidan dansu is an early Meiji era chest from the Kansai vicinity. It is quite deep and exhibits a tall closet secured by a hinged door. It is finished in wiped lacquer with kakute iron handles.


階 段箪笥の魅力はなんといっても2階へ上がるという用途と、物を仕舞うというもうひとつの用途を達成している点である。もともとは梯子があり、その下に箱型 の階段が動かないように家屋の一部として建てられ、箱階段と呼ばれていた。その後ほとんどの階段箪笥は、見かけは家屋の一部のように見えるが、箪笥として 動かせるようになっているのが特徴である。こちらは明治の初めに大阪地方で作られた、奥行きが深く、開き戸のついた拭き漆仕上げの重ね階段箪笥である。


NC # 14 Kaidan dansu

This Meiji era kaidan dansu comes from Fukui prefecture and exhibits a wiped lacquer finish in two colors, a transparent red and opaque black. The woods are sugi for the framing and panels and keyaki for drawer faces. The drawer handles of forged iron are in a simplified mokko or melon vine pattern.






Kitchen cupboard. Mizuya actually means “place of cold water” and the derivation of the term is from the “kitchen“ space in a traditional teahouse where utensils were cleaned

Mizuya became the colloquial expression of kitchen tansu. Sometimes see the terms todana or daidokoro todana literally “kitchen cupboard” used for these tansu as well. Such cupboards held ceramics, lacquer wares, utensils for dining, and even cookbooks. The Edo period saw not just an evolution in cabinetry but in cooking as well.

Urban markets saw a greater variety of foods, oven design evolved, there was a growth in restaurants, and the first published cookbooks became available. Kitchen cupboards were thus needed and became a regional specialty especially in towns surrounding Lake Biwa. They were generally made from two stacking sections and can be three, four, six and even 9 feet wide. Frame and panel construction was common for these larger chests with prized woods such as keyaki or persimmon incorporated into the door panel and drawer faces in some regional styles.




NC #9 Mizuya dansu

This tansu is from the Kyoto vicinity and exhibits ornate cutouts in the screened doors securing the “pie safe” compartment, used just as it was in the west, to store food items. The grain of the woods in the door panels and drawer fronts is highlighted by wiped lacquer.






Kanto style clothing chests

In the Kanto plain, Edo (now Tokyo), was by the early eighteenth century, was one of the most populous cities in the world. The cabinetry favored by its wealthy and powerful residents was a stacking chest on chest with double doors on the top cabinet, which secured drawers inside, and a bottom cabinet with two drawers. A small safe-like compartment was also seen as in this example.

Kanto tansu were produced both in Edo and the surrounding towns. Kiri or paulownia was the favored wood of this cabinetry. These chests were often given as wedding gifts and it is said that they were first popularized by being a favored gift to entertainers in the pleasure districts of the day. They went through a number of design changes and by the Meiji period had lost the two-hinged upper doors.









NC #10 Kanto style isho-dansu

This Kanto isho-dansu exhibits distinctive hardware with iron strapping and a central iron lock plate on the upper doors inscribed with a family crest. This ivy leaf or tsuta, crest or mon is historically associated with the Matsudaira family. This tansu is wholly fashioned from kiri wood or paulownia with a wiped lacquer finish. Circa 1850, Late Edo period.





NC #11 Sendai isho-dansu

The town of Sendai produced tansu from about 1850 into the 1930’s.The proverbial Sendai design is a large single section rectangular chest with a full width upper drawer faced with floral patterned lock plates and central safe compartment on the right side. Early Sendai chests are however a simpler design and rare, one appears before you here.

This early Sendai chest has a squarish design and exhibits a lower single drawer addition made to add height. This hardware has incised floral lock plates depicting chrysanthemum and hand forged iron handles. The chrysanthemum has a long association with the Japanese Emperor and hence is a favorite floral design in hardware. Instead of a central safe two small drawers are to the right. It is made of keyaki with wiped lacquer. The case is sugi.







NC #12 Tsuruoka isho-dansu with bo



This single section chest is from the town of Tsuruoka and was traditionally given as a bridal present. It is distinctive due to its opaque black lacquer and use of embossed hardware. Tsuruoka is located along the Japan Sea coast in the Shonai plain in northwest Yamagata prefecture. The chest has a large locking bar that is ornately covered with iron fittings.





The hardware depicts auspicious symbols of crane, long tailed tortoise, pine, plum blossom and bamboo. This was apt imagery for a bridal chest as it symbolized longevity, fertility, strength and perserverence. The locking bar also depicts a five circle family crest; it is a stylized plum blossom design.

Below, the decorative and symbolic depictions continue with drawer lock plates of kirin a mythical beast associated with protection and prosperity and on the safe a beautifully wrought scene of cranes amidst pine boughs. The handle style is warabi-te, or bracken hand referring to a curled up young fern.









NC #13 Sakata isho-dansu


This clothing chest is from Sakata, a port town located at the mouth of the Mogami River along the Japan Sea coast. Sakata was known as a center for ship’s chest production but the skilled craftsmen of the town also made wedding tansu. The drawer fronts exhibits stunning keyaki wood grain, all of which were sawn from one flitch. The dark iron lock plates, and hand forged handles visually connect to the black lacquer surround providing a quiet contrast to the chest drawer fronts finished in clear lacquer. Meiji era, circa 1880-1900.






NC #15 Takayama temoto dansu with bo

This medium scaled tansu is a women’s personal chest from the mountain town of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture. Takayama tansu exhibit a distinctive use of shunkei lacquer which is yellow-orange that turns a beautiful orange brown or red orange with age. Tansu from this town also have a distinctive frame and panel construction technique used on drawer fronts. The drawers evidence only small circular lock plates without any iron handles. Instead a small recessed finger hold is found beneath the drawer’s top frame member.

In some Takayama personal tansu such as this example the upper sliding doors are finished with small delicate ink paintings. In this case a floral motif stretches across both doors. A locking bar secures drawers below and the drawer handle style is the serpentine hiru-te or “leech style”.




NC #16 Yonezawa Isho-dansu


The town of Yonezawa in southeast Yamagata prefecture was a center for tansu production from the late Edo period. It is known for kuruma dansu - rolling chests, but many fine clothing chests were also produced there also. Lock plates are distinctive with a preference for ornate designs depicting a stylized butterfly or cherry blossoms and decorative corner hardware depicting tea seedpods.

This particular tansu is exceptional in that it is built almost entirely of keyaki or elm and a wiped lacquer finish overall. The drawer interiors are made of sugi. These stout chests are heavy and depict fine wood grain on the cabinet sides and top indicative that one long board was used for the construction. Handles are in the cast iron melon vine style. Meiji period 1868-1912.







NC # 17 Sakata kiri dansu



This is another popular clothing chest style from the town of Sakata. Instead of a tansu that used keyaki (elm) and wiped lacquer this style uses plain kiri wood as the predominant wood. Contrasting thick iron hardware makes for a captivating design. This tansu is a chest on chest as was usual with clothing tansu and exhibits stout handles on the side for portability. The distinctive locks are a stylized chrysanthemum flower design.




NC #18 Ogi isho-dansu



Ogi is a town on Sado Island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. Ogi was known for large imposing clothing chests and a population of renowned craftsmen. Like Sakata it also was a center for ship’s chest production. This tansu is a rare and very fine example depicting large cloud patterned lock plates and decorative corner hardware distinctive to the town.




Ogi chests also exhibit an unusual iron banding along the front edges of the cabinet. The keyaki drawers are finished in clear lacquer over a red stain. The case of sugi has wiped lacquer. Handles are in the warabi-te or “bracken hand “style.





NC #19 Taisho era isho dansu

The Taisho era (1912-1926) saw a mix of traditional tansu designs mingling with many of the new industrial techniques from the west. This clothing chest depicts simple round lock plates where the key both locks and unlocks the drawer, different from earlier locks with floriate buttons. Interior drawers also exhibit cutout handles facilitating removal. Note the recessed handles and hardware on the chest sides, the handles on the lower chest side capture the upper tansu. While less obtrusive, these handles are also less functional, alluding to the new, more sedentary, life of tansu.

Overall the tansu exhibits a simple asymmetrical beauty alluding to a previous era. It has some beautiful kuwa or mulberry wood in the drawers and each drawer exhibits banding of contrasting sakura (cherry wood). This drawer construction is unusual for tansu. The case is sakura with wiped lacquer. Drawer interiors are sugi and sakura.



NC # 20 Showa era isho dansu

This is a three-section stacking kiri clothing chest. This imminently practical design rapidly became the dominate twentieth century style especially after the Kanto earthquake of 1923.The style originated in Osaka but was adopted and evolved as Tokyo rebuilt itself and cabinetry once again filled homes.

This style tansu had both drawers and a series of trays in the central compartment secured by hinged doors. An open cupboard is uppermost with full width drawers below. The trays allude to the influence of western style clothing which many urban residents adopted in the late Meiji and Taisho eras. Even as such clothing fads faded the Japanese liked the trays for smaller garments and the design stayed popular.

The hardware is industrially produced as was usual with tansu produced after about 1915 and into the mid-twentieth century. Kiri wood is used throughout.



Ships Chests

Ship’s tansu were a ship’s safe, desks, and clothing chests for boats plying their trade along coastal Japan Sea routes known as the kitamaesen. It was apt symbol of the stout spirit of these ships captains and boat owners and held valuable documents such as passports, and business licenses, seals and money.


The kakesuzuri style is the oldest ship’s chest design and can be seen in regional variations from about 1800. The name of the chest derives from the suzuri-bako or inkstone box common to businesses and shops on land. Common to most is a cube like design with a large hinged front door.

The Cho-bako style is a ship’s strongbox, it’s name means “merchant box” and is the second most prevalent style. The cho-bako style had the greatest number of variations of drawers, doors and secret compartments configurations. Some were a maze of false doors and boxes inside of boxes. These characteristics evidenced a pride in workmanship and thwarted theft.Cho-bako sea chests were made in port towns like Ogi on Sado Island, Sakata in Yamagata, and Mikuni on the Noto peninsula.





NC #21 Kakesuzuri style funa dansu


This ship’s chest tansu is an early version of the squarish design known as “inkstone box style”. Such chests held money and important papers of the seaman-merchant. This style, can be seen as early as1800 and represents the earliest ship’s chest design. This example has simple iron cross straps bracing a sugi cedar front door and case. This door secures a traditional interior configuration of kirwood drawers.




NC #22 Kakesuzuri style funa dansu

This chest and others like it were made on Sado Island and were constructed in keyaki (elm) with finely wrought metal fittings and hardware. The iron fittings on the door consist of incised bamboo, pine and plum motifs, symbols of longevity and endurance.

Iron hardware was not just decorative but strengthened the wood joinery of the cabinet box and was symbolic of the wealth of the chests owner. This particular chest exhibits the central vertical hardware on the door known as obi-kanagu or sash hardware. Brass fittings denoting family name or business trademarks were often placed in the circular holes at the top and bottom. On this chest the trademark is actually on the side of the tansu.

The chest interior consists of small drawers made of kiri wood (paulownia) with keyaki (elm) drawer faces. A secret coin box is located at the rear of one drawer.






NC #23 Cho-bako style funa dansu

This chest is from Sado Island. It has one large drop-fit (kendon buta) door beneath a top drawer. This panel door secures drawers within and a “waterproof“ kiri box within a box.

The interior is made of kiri wood and all drawer fronts and case is keyaki. Iron fittings include thick iron locks, decorative corner hardware and strapping which reinforces the case joinery. Handles are in the kaku-te style or “square-hand” save for the side handles which are warabi-te or “bracken hand”.

This chest is inscribed on the base: Heisaburo Miyamoto - Boat Owner - Noto.  Made in Ogi - Sado Island  - Meiji 20 (1888) September 18th. 






NC # 24 Katana dansu with bo

Even low-level samurai required a chest for swords and fittings. This example is made of kiri (paulownia tomentosa) which is the favored wood for storage of precious items. Kiri wood beautiful grain, golden brown color and over time attains its own patina from use and oxidation. The locking bar or bo secures two drawers. Bos were originally an efficient and cost saving way to secure multiple drawers when handmade lock plates were expensive. But one can also see them as compositional elements of attractive design as in this tansu.