Tansu is a unique form of Japanese cabinetry straddling a line between furniture and folk art. In the Spring of 1996, at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, I curated an exhibition entitled "Tansu Exposed: The Craft of Japanese Antique Cabinetry." My intention was to gain a larger audience for this still little-known part of Japan's woodworking heritage. I took as my point of departure the excellent book on the subject by Ty and Kiyoko Heineken: "Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry" (Published by John Weatherhill, Inc., New York, 1981). The exhibition consisted of some 25 chests representing the full range of function and finish.
Tansu Exposed part 1 Tansu is the collective term given to the antique cabinetry of Japan. This cabinetry first appeared in the upper classes of society in the early Edo period (1615-1780), and by late Edo (1780-1867) and Meiji eras (1868-1912) had evolved into numerous styles built for and purchased by a wide population. These chests evolved from the earlier boxes and trunks of the upper class, warriors, and townsmen. The evolution of designs with multiple doors and drawers with iron hardware, both functional and decorative, arose in response to diverse needs during a period of economic expansion and rising standards of living. In early tansu we find stored the swords of samurai, the valuables of the sea-faring trader, kimono of the upper-class woman, a merchant's inventory or the few possessions of the townsmen. Later we find large cabinets for the kitchen, the hybrid cabinet known as the step-chest, which combines staircase and storage, clothing chests of distinct regional variation and increasing numbers of chests for merchants.
Tansu Exposed Part 2 Mobility was a key design consideration. Indeed, there is a whole class of rolling chests with built-in axles. Other chests, built in stacking units, had iron handles affixed to their sides, making them portable by pole or hand. It should be noted that tansu, with few exceptions (for example the kitchen cupboard called Mizuya-dansu) was not stationary household furniture in the western sense. Most chests were stored away in loft spaces, or fire-proof outbuildings called "kura." The traditional Japanese house was a place of limited but open space, the unfettered room ever ready for a variety of functions. Clothing chests were moved into the home for the seasonal exchange of kimonos, and thereafter returned to storage. Occasionally, a wealthy family might show a prized chest in the main room of entertainment, but this is a far cry from the room after room of furniture so common to the west.
Tansu Exposed Part 3 Tansu reflect the efforts of a variety of craftsmen. The cabinetmaker built the carcase and drawers while the iron-smith fabricated and forged handles and lockplates. The lacquersmith would provide the finish, the quality of which was dictated by social position.
Kiri (Paulownia, similar to our own southeastern species), Sugi (similar to our bald cypress), Hinoki (similar to Alaskan yellow cedar), and Keyaki (similar to red elm and ash) were the cabinetmaker's woods, and all were prized for individual qualities. These include stability, weight, color, smell, strength, and figure. Sugi and Hinoki make up the bulk of the carcase and frame-and-panel construction. Kiri was a favorite for drawer interiors due to its ability to absorb summer's humidity. Keyaki's flat-sawn grain was favored for drawer fronts, almost always finished with transparent lacquer.
Joinery of carcases was primarily by three- or five-part finger joints that were glued and pegged. Backs and floors were butted and pegged, and also rabbeted and dadoed. Drawers exhibited sides rabbeted into the drawer front with bottoms pegged on. Carcases generally exhibit additional iron hardware along corners and edges, which provides strength and visual effect. Larger tansu with frame construction show mortise and tenon throughout.
The cabinetmaker of the Edo period had a variety of chisels, a few single-blade planes, marking gauges, squares, and a tenon saw variation. By the Meiji era, during the 1880s, his toolbox expanded with two additional saws: the dozuki (a fine-toothed, stiff-backed tenon saw) and the ryoba noko-giri (the familiar combination cross-cut and rip saw). By the early 1900s, his planes exhibited the secondary blade we term the chip-breaker. The Meiji-era was a time of change. With the opening of the ports by Commodore Perry, Japan was ushered into the modern era and its seclusion ended. Civil authority replaced military rule, and by 1876 samurai swords were outlawed. Woodworkers were the beneficiaries of such changes, for this was when the renowned swordsmiths of Japan turned to toolmaking and began forging the superlative chisels and plane irons we see in use today.
By the Taisho period (1912-1922), the full weight of the twentieth century was bearing down on the small shop of the cabinetmaker. Most regional styles of clothing tansu (the last major manifestation of growth and innovation) were defunct or in decline. The headlong rush to industrialize had its predictable effect: the ways of craftsmen were marginalized. The classic period of tansu would remain the Edo and Meiji eras, years when furnishings embodied the craftsman's eye and hand, years when tansu were functional and beautiful.